A Russian Navy expedition to the frozen wastes of the Arctic last week ended in disaster when one of the expedition ships was lost to hostile forces, specifically the kind with flippers and whiskers. The ship, an inflatable landing boat, was sunk by a walrus after the Russian expedition was deemed a threat to nearby walrus cubs. No walruses—or Russians—were injured in the action.
According to CNN and other outlets, the incident took place during an expedition by Russia’s Northern Fleet to the Franz Josef Land chain of islands. The chain consists of 191 windy, lichen-encrusted islands north of the Arctic Circle and approximately 1,700 miles north of Moscow.
Part of the Russian Arctic National Park, Franz Josef Land has a population of 1,200 spread out over 6,229 square miles, making it one of the least densely populated places on earth.
This summer’s expedition revisited historic sites in the archipelago, including those of the original Austro-Hungarian expedition that discovered and named the islands in 1874. The Russian Navy salvage tug Altai sent a landing party ashore on Wilcek Island, and that was where the trouble started.
There, at Cape Geller, the expedition Russians encountered a herd of walruses. A Russian Ministry of Defense article describes the action as follows:
During the landing at Cape Geller, a group of researchers had to flee from a female walrus, which, protecting its cubs, attacked an expedition boat. Serious troubles were avoided thanks to the clear and well-coordinated actions of the Northern Fleet servicemen, who were able to take the boat away from the animals without harming them.
At present, the Altai rescue tugboat, with participants in a joint expedition of the Northern Fleet and the Russian Geographical Society, continues to perform tasks in the Algeria area in difficult hydrometeorological conditions when ice and icebergs accumulate.
The article includes an overhead photograph of a walrus herd, suggesting the combination of people and a buzzing drone could have alarmed the walruses into taking decisive action.
Walruses, which are marine mammals, are commonly found in the Arctic. They are among the largest of the seals, with Atlantic Walrus females growing to 1,600 pounds and up to nine feet long. That sounds like plenty of walrus to trash an inflatable boat.
The surviving Russian vessel, Altai, is a salvage tug assigned to the Northern Fleet. Built in 1985, it displaces 4,000 tons fully loaded and is 300 feet long. The expedition flagship is currently anchored at the port of Vistino in the Gulf of Finland.
Here’s a picture of a walrus on the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Krasnoyarsk, somewhere in the northern Pacific. The Russian dudebro holding out his arms in the photograph is a Photoshop job, but the Russian Navy noncommissioned officer with the nervous grin is real enough.
The extent of this setback to Russian-Walrus relations remains to be seen.