Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

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Pacific Walrus tusk and shadowPacific Walrus basking on the rocky shore of Round Island, Alaska

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As we perched on a rocky headland above Bristol Bay, two Pacific Walruses sparred in the shallow water below, their jabbing tusks gleaming in the late afternoon sun.  Clouds of spray splashed up from the roiling waters in a battle for dominance.  And these were just two males among a hundred or so around thisRound Island in distance, Alaska sheltered stony beach, with perhaps six hundred resting and swimming on the fringes of Round Island on this early July day in bright Alaskan sunshine.

Our trip to see Walruses began several days earlier.  We approached Round Island on July 5th, after an early morning boat trip from Togiak, a Yup’ik Eskimo village at the mouth of the Togiak River.  Round Island, part of Alaska’s Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, lies about 40 miles offshore, and is accessible only by a small charter boat.  As we drew closer to the island, Paul Markoff, the Captain and charter operator, cut the big engine to a murmur and asked me to stop using myCharter boat approaching Round Island camera flash, so as not to disturb the dozen Walruses basking atop Flat Rock.  Alaska Fish & Game seasonal employee Stephanie Sell stood at the rocky base of the cliff, garbed in tall rubber boots and a bright squall parka, ready to help us transfer our gear and give us an island orientation.  The boat departed, and Stephanie duly recorded in her field notes that several Walruses had been spooked off the rock by our arrival.

You wouldn’t think that 4,000 lb. creatures would be scared by a small boat, but Walruses areCharter boat reaching Round Island extraordinarily sensitive to the sound of motors.  Even a small plane, flying too low, can cause a panic, with hundreds of the immense creatures fleeing the land for the safety of the sea–a panic that can result in trampling and death much like a shouted threat of fire in a crowded theater.  That is why the regulations are so strict.

We climbed the steep stairs and said our brief goodbye to the arrival beach, which would be off limits to us until our departure.  Stephanie showed us around the camping area, which has half-a-dozen or so tent platforms, which sit atop

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Walruses and Dragon's Tail on Round IslandFrom the camping area: Walruses basking on Flat Rock, with Dragon’s Tail distant, and hundreds more Walruses were resting on the beach below Dragon’s Tail

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archaeological digs of campsites that were used seasonally for 6,000 years.  The archaelogist figured that the safest way to ensure the long-term conservation of these sites was to cover them up with the platforms.  We expected to see or hear ghosts of old Eskimos in the middle of the night, but our sleep was sound on this island that lacks Brown Bears and other nightmares.

We next checked out the cooking tent, which provided a good place to get out of rain and wind.  It also had a propane stove, which was important since we could not bring a backpacking stove and fuel on our plane rides.  There was a big bin forCook tent on Round Island food storage, to keep the island’s Red Foxes from gaining access to human food.  Water was available nearby from a tiny stream, but it had to be filtered or otherwise treated.

Next, Stephanie showed us the sanctuary office, which was headquarters for the three staff, who stay on the island from May to mid-August, when the weather starts to deteriorate.  A generator and solar power provided enough electricity for the staff to have a bit of power to fuel the radios and a computer that are the only means of contacting the mainland.  Stephanie taught us Cooking tent interior on Round Island, Alaskahow to use the radios and Iridium satellite phone, in case of a serious emergency (a heart attack qualifies, but not a sprained ankle), if staff was not available.

After the briefing, we were on our own with a list of wildlife-watching rules echoing in our heads.  The island has a trail system that leads to a series of overlooks, where we could see Walruses, Stellar’s Sea Lions, Horned Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, and other seabirds.  After setting up our tent, we immediately assembled our photo gear and crept up to a viewpoint about 100 feet away, where we had a

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Pacific Walrus bones and tusks on Round Island

Round Island Sanctuary office, with old bones from a Walrus that was part of a 1970s-era research project

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wonderful close view of Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins perched on a lichen-covered rock in the afternoon sunshine.  This made a fine start to our wildlife watching and photography.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage near our campsite

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After watching the puffins for a time, we crouch-walked away from the overlook, and began a hike toward one end of the island, where there is a rock formation that looks like a jagged spine leading far out into the ocean.  The staff calls this formation the “Dragon’s Tail,” an appropriate name for what looks like a scaly tail emerging from the depths.  At the end of the trail, we kneeled at an overlook where wePacific Walrus threat postures among the resting herd looked down upon hundreds more Walruses, basking along the Dragon’s Tail beaches.  Closer, we had an intimate view of sheer cliff faces, alive with the shrill cries of hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes, some in flight and others perched on precarious nests clinging to the cliff face.  Common Murres occupied nearby ledges, attempting to guard their big blue eggs against marauding Common Ravens.

We have a lot of patience for watching wildlife, so the hours flew by on our first day, as we thrilled to the sight of walruses just 100 feet away.  We finally got hungry, and hiked to the cook tent to make our dinner.  We eat simply when we’re in the field, so it was a dehydrated Backpacker’s Pantry brand dinner of Jamaican BBQ Chicken.  Pretty good, at that.  But  the island’s only other guests, a pair of guys from Manhattan, had more sophisticated tastes; they prepared an elaborate meal of fresh vegetables and morel mushrooms that had the aroma of a fine restaurant (undoubtedly the taste as well, but we’ll never know, since it was their dinner).

After dinner, we walked back to an overlook and enjoyed the view of puffins and Parakeet Auklets and Walruses loudly exhaling as they surfaced offshore.  By now, it was 11:00 pm, but the sun had not yet set.  We were tired, so we retired to the tent

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Pacific Walrus, pale and exhaling upon surfacingWalrus exhaling after a deep dive, pale from the cold of the ocean depths

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for a blissful sleep in a night that never really got dark.  We drifted off to dream, with a sound track of Kittiwake cries and Walrus’s sharply exhaling.

In the morning, we decided to climb to the top of the island, after the Manhattan guys described the wonderful views out over Bristol Bay.  We stopped at the sanctuary office, picked up a map and a radio (in case of an emergency), then proceeded to begin the hike and climb.  Since there is no trail to the top, we relied

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Outhouse on Round Island, AlaskaThe high dome of Round Island rises nearly 1500 feet above sea level, and is a steep, hard hike.  The camp outhouse, in the foreground, is secured with steel cables so that it won’t blow over in the high winds.

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on a description of where to make the climb so that we wouldn’t encounter dead-end cliffs.  It was steep, as we knew  from looking at the high dome of an island towering above our camp.  We trudged over low willow thickets, and around the highest trees on this tundra-clad island–which were a few willows about eight feet tall.  As the pitch grew steeper, our calves burned, but we eventually summited.  The island rises nearly 1,500 feet above sea level and gives a panoramic view of the bay, the distant mainland, and the sparkling blue Bering Sea.

On our way up, we were struck by the beautiful wildflowers everywhere.  Since there are no grazing animals on the island, vegetation is abundant and lush for the subarctic tundra.  There were yellow Alaska Poppies, deep blue Monkshood, dark

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AK_Round_Island-530 copyAlaska HarebellAlaska Harebell on the left, with Chocolate Lily on the right

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Alaska PoppyAlaska Poppies added delicate yellow petals to the tundra landscape.

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Wild Geranium in AlaskaStunning Wild Geraniums bloomed along the headlands of Round Island.

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brownish purple Chocolate Lilies, vivid purple Violets, lavender/rose Dwarf Fireweed, delicate Spring Beauty and scores of other species at their peak of bloom.  Cloudberry and Nagoonberry trailed along the ground, offering the promise of delicious fruits if we could stay long enough on the island.  There was even Lady Fern, a species we used to cultivate at our home in upstate New York.

We walked along Red Fox trails on the high, relatively flat summit, passing several dens.  We were disappointed not to see any Red Foxes here or anywhere else on Watching Pacific Walrus on Round Islandthe island, though there is supposed to be a population of about 30 foxes.  They were undoubtedly watching us, but predators can remain hidden if they wish.  The Red Foxes, as well as the other major predator, Common Ravens, make their living largely by eating seabirds and their eggs, at least during the long nesting season.  One predator, not previously known on the island, was discovered this year.  Diane Calamar Okonek, the sanctuary manager, discovered a Weasel foraging along the shore.  The winters must be hard on the predators after the fat summers teeming with life, but there are Lemmings on the island that would make a good winter dinner.

While watching Walruses from one overlook, we saw a Common Raven fly in with a bloody red mass that was almost certainly a chick, perhaps from a puffin or murre.  The raven layed it on the ground, then proceeded to pick up stone after stone, which it laid on top of the dead bird; then it ripped off some grasses and wildflowers, and laid those on top.  It was either an elaborate burial ceremony or the caching of food for later use.  We suspect the latter.  This is the fat time of year for predators, and we had watched ravens snatching a lot of eggs from the 250,000 nesting birds on the island, so a little bit of saving for a rainy day was a good raven survival strategy.

From the far end of the island, we had a spectacular view down over Dragon’s Tail.  Perhaps 300 Walruses were huddled together in several groups strung out along the beaches of Dragon’s Tail.  We observed the spine of this rock formation leading

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Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's Tail

Walruses resting on the haul-outs along the beaches of the Dragon’s Tail rock formation: in some years there would be thousands on these beaches (instead of the hundreds shown here)

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hundreds of yards out into Bristol Bay.  Also from the summit of Round Island, we got to see the exceedingly steep other side of the island.  Rock outcrops, looking like castles, broke the steep slope and were circled by Black-legged Kittiwakes, calling with a sound that reminded me of children crying.

Round Island is a rich sensory experience.  The scent of salt air mingles with the intense smells of thousands of nesting seabirds and resting Walruses.  Seabirds fly Castle-like formation on Round Islandeverywhere overhead, crying out ceaselessly.  On the way down from the summit, we heard a Hermit Thrush making its elegant song from the willow thickets; this was a sound we did not expect, since we are used to hearing these thrushes in the ancient forests of our Pacific Northwest wilderness.  Golden-crowned Sparrows called mournfully from perches; Savanna Sparrows chipped constantly from atop the dried umbels of Cow Parsnip and Wild Celery.

That night, a strong wind rose, flapping the tent vigorously and reminding us why the sanctuary guidelines strongly suggest bringing a four-season tent.  Weather is often a concern here, with high winds and drenching rains during the summer.  In fact, one visitor wrote in the logbook:  “Now it’s raining, wet, and very, very, windy.  Our outhouse blew over last night.” That’s not likely to happen again, because the outhouse and the headquarters buildings are each held down by steel cables that stretch over the roof and are securely anchored in the ground.  The winds can keep small charter boats from making the trip out to the island; in fact, campers are told to

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Windy day in camp, Round Island, AlaskaStrong winds turned the tall grasses and our tent into a motion picture.

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have a week’s extra supply of food in case of a prolonged storm.  We heard of a pair of German photographers who were stuck in Dillingham for ten days, trying to get to the island.  They ran out of time and were never able to make the voyage out.  For this reason, we built in a couple of extra days at the beginning and end of the trip, so that we would have some flexibility.

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Headlands Trail on Round IslandTrail along the headlands on a windy day..

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The winds were strong for the next two days, but no rains came.  Wildflower and small bird photography became impossible, but we were able to concentrate on photographing the Walruses and Steller Sea Lions during this unsettled period.  Prior to our coming, there had been an intense storm that crashed huge waves along the island’s beaches, ruining the quiet basking that the Walruses prefer.  So the Walruses went to Plan B, and sailed out to sea for a period of diving and feeding.  During our visit, the big mammals were gradually returning.  By the third day of our trip, they had returned to another cove that gave us some wonderful new views from the low headlands.

There were perhaps 600 Walruses on the island by the end of our visit.  This compares with some years in the not-so-distant past when there were 10,000 Walruses on Round Island.  Biologists are not sure why there has been a change,

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Pacific Walrus resting on rocks on Round IslandWalrus resting among the voluptuous rocks along the shore.

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but one possible reason is that they may have temporarily depleted the food supply near the island.  Walruses dive for clams, and that is their primary food source.  When that food source is depleted, the big mammals can shift to other haul-outs during the summer where nearby food is more plentiful.  I decided to write a separate weblog entry about Walrus biology, because I wanted to say so much that there wasn’t room here.  Go to: https://leerentz.wordpress.com/2009/09/08/i-am-the-walrus/

There is another big marine mammal that claims a separate beach at Round Island.  The Steller Sea Lion haul-out is found at the opposite end of the island from the Walruses.  We hiked out to a high overlook, which gave us a bird’s eye view of

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Steller Sea Lions at Round IslandPolygamous Steller Sea Lion male with a few of his favored females.

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these graceful creatures.  Actually, the females and young are sleek and graceful, but the hulking males are corpulent and demanding lords over their territory, reminding me for all the world of Jabba the Hutt in one of the original Star Wars movies.  We watched one male surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful females.  Apparently, these are not like an Elk harem, in which the male jealously guards his polygamous family.  Instead, the huge male sets up a territory, from which females are free to come and go.  But his presence provides genes for the lovely ladies and protection for their young.

While watching the Steller Sea Lions, a group of about 20 females swam together at the base of the cliffs in what seemed to be synchronous swimming.  They were so graceful that they should probably try out for the summer Olympics.  Despite the Swimming Steller Sea Lionsapparently thriving Round Island population, numbers of Stellar Sea Lions have dropped precipitously in the Aleutian Islands–so much so that they are now officially listed as an Endangered Species.  We watched Stephanie Sell intently counting the Sea Lions on a mechanical clicker; her job was to count them three times to try and get an accurate census.

In the cook tent, there was a poster showing a colorful moth, with a request that should we find one, we catch it and bring it to the staff.  The moth, known by its scientific name of Artica opulenta, is found elsewhere, but the Round Island population has a unique color pattern.  Lo and behold, we found one in the trail about 150 yards from the headquarters building.  It was a stunner–with striking black & white patterned wings and a body of vivid reddish-orange and black.  I captured it in my hand and carried it to the office, where we interrupted the staff’s wonderful-smelling curry dinner.  Diane, the sanctuary manager, was ecstatic at our find.  After duly photographing it, she and Stephanie put it into the “nighty night” jar where it would enter perpetual sleep, and eventually join a national collection of arctic moths and butterflies.

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Pacific Walrus, pale upon surfacing from the depthsA big male, pale after a long session of cold, deep sea diving.

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Diane, with her husband Brian, have been stationed at Round Island each summer for many years.  They are dedicated to ensuring the safety of all creatures on the island (with the possible exception of our moth, but science trumps preservation in that instance).  The sanctuary is tightly run, with counts of Walruses and nesting seabirds done on a regular basis so that population trends can be monitored.

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Diane Calamar Okonek on Round IslandAK_Round_Island-259

Staff members Diane Calamar Okonek, sanctuary manager, on the left and Stephanie Sell counting sea lions on the right

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Visitors to the island are also tightly monitored; except for the trek to the summit, we were confined to the trail system and overlooks.  That worked out well, even for us photographers, since the overlooks are located in the best places.

As a serious photographer, taking good photographs on the island was my highest priority, and Karen always wants to record vivid visual memories of a trip.  Since this was a special trip, Karen brought a high-definition video camera, and I brought a full-frame digital SLR.  I also brought enough memory cards so I could take about 2,000 pictures in the RAW format, which gives me more flexibility in exposures.  I brought a 500mm lens with a 1.4x extender, a 70-200mm zoom lens, a 100mm macro lens, a 24-105mm all-purpose zoom for landscapes, and a graphite tripod.  I did not bring a computer for downloading the images because of battery issues, but that ended up being OK because it gave me more time to concentrate on the wildlife rather than the computer.  Lord knows I spend way too many hours in front of the computer as it is.

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Clouds above peak on Round Island, AlaskaDramatic puffy clouds above the tundra summit of Round Island.

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Now, for some important trip details.  The weather was warmer than we expected, so our winter-weight sleeping bags were overkill. During some periods on the island the heavy bags would feel just right.  Camping on the island is allowed from sometime in May until sometime in August, when staff leave for the year.  July, when we visited, is supposed to have the best, most consistent, weather.  Mosquitoes?  Most of the time, with the constant breezes, they were not a problem.  Pacific Walrus warming up on Round IslandOn our last day, there was virtually no wind at all, so we were bitten a few times.  On the other hand, at what other time in our lives will we be able to say that we shared blood and DNA with a Horned Puffin?

In the cook tent there is a small library of articles about Round Island, which made for wonderful reading while drinking my morning coffee.  There is also a logbook where visitors can sum up their experiences; here are a few of the entries from recent years:

“We are on our honeymoon, and Round Island is a place we have dreamed about going to for a long time.”

“We weathered 3 nights in Togiak and may have 3 more here past our departure date, but the one day here yesterday–full of sunshine–is well worth it.”Pacific Walrus climbing up on a rock at Round Island

“For days I had been hearing a sound like a string instrument and I assumed it was the wind in the cliffs, or that I was imagining the sound. Diane told me that the walrus make the sound; it is one of the most amazing noises I’ve ever heard, and who would think such a noise would come from a walrus?”

“The weather increased our stay by two days …”

“Arrived on beautiful calm seas after two days of high wind that kept us in Togiak.”

“Where else but Round Island can you sit in the outhouse and watch walrus swim by?”

“Falling asleep to the sound of walruses swimming by below my tent site is something I will never forget.”

“Truly the trip of a lifetime …”

On our last morning on the island, a parade of Walruses swam by below our tent, just a few feet from shore on the high tide.  They were making their musical chorus of sounds:  bell-like sounds when their air sacs are inflated; sharp train whistle

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Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayWalrus loudly exhaling as it passes by our tent site.

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toots; and their Bronx cheer of bubbling breaths upon surfacing.  Not only that, but some were swimming peaceably side-by-side, rather than jabbing at each other with fierce tusks in their more normal displays of dominance.  We think they were saying an affectionate “goodbye” to us.

Diane came to our tent that morning and said that we had sure gotten lucky.  I hoped she meant that charter Captain Paul Markoff couldn’t make it and that we could spend an extra day on the island, but, no, she merely Charter boat arriving at Round Islandmeant that the weather had been particularly fine during our visit.  So, we reluctantly packed up our tent and the rest of our gear, and prepared to meet Paul at the cove.

This trip is now a wonderful memory of one of the high points in our lives.  We would love to go back to Round Island, for more days drinking in the rich nature of that spectacular place, where we could again enjoy watching the planet’s distant inhabitants as they experience the daily rhythms of their lives.

If you are curious about Round Island, and want to see about getting a five-day camping permit for the island, go to this website: http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=refuge.rnd_is This will give you the necessary information to begin planning one of those trips of a lifetime.  Paul Markoff, the owner of Togiak Outfitters, can be reached through the information on this web page: http://www.visitbristolbay.org/togiakoutfitters/

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Leaving Round Island, AlaskaSadly leaving Round Island on a beautiful, calm morning on Bristol Bay

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Pacific Walrus herd on Round IslandWalrus haul-out at Second Beach.

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Pacific Walrus using flippers to move on a rock.Walruses move on land by using their flippers

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Pacific Walrus pale upon emerging from the Pacific Ocean depthsPale male Walrus, cold and whitish because its blood retreats to the body core, coming to land after time spent diving for clams in the cold ocean bottom

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Pacific Walruses sparring in the waters off Round IslandMale Walruses fighting for dominance in Bristol Bay, just off the Round Island cliffs

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AK_Round_Island-250 copyThe Round Island headlands shelter a quarter million nesting seabirds

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To view the three other weblog stories from our trip to Round Island, go to:

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I am the Walrus

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4th of July in an Eskimo Village

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Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to myPhotoShelter Website

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15 Comments on “Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska”

  1. leerentz Says:

    I arranged the trip by starting with the Alaska Fish and Game Department’s online description of the Round Island Walrus Game Sanctuary, which provides the necessary contact information for Paul Markoff’s Togiak Outfitters company. From there, it is a matter of calling Fish & Game’s office in Dillingham to make sure that there is space available on the island for the days you want to visit. Then you need to contact Paul Markoff and the bed & breakfast in Togiak, as well as check flight availability into Togiak via PenAir. All these have to come into alignment, so it is good to make reservations early. This year there was light visitor demand for Round Island; but sometimes demand might be quite a lot higher. Togiak Outfitters might be able to plan and guide the trip for you; contact Paul Markoff for details. It is an absolutely wonderful trip, and I urge you to go!

    • leerentz Says:

      My comment above was in response to a question from Robin Hicks (which I accidentally deleted and could not retrieve). Robin had commented:

      “What a breathtakingly beautiful trip! How did you arrange for such a wonderful journey?”

  2. Peter Koole (New Zealand) Says:

    I was lucky enough to be on the Greenpeace ship RV Rainbow Warrior passing Round Island in Sept 1991 I think. The crew were granted permits to visit the Island for 1 day. It was definitely a highlight of those 7 months on the ship.

  3. Cindy Says:

    What a great “trip report”! Did you have many opportunities to see the walruses (sp) up close? Was it hard to get photos of them? Did you have the right lenses? I love your images – especially the puffin. How perfect is that.

    I’ve seen some really cool stuff and hope to see these hunky guys. 🙂

    • leerentz Says:

      For the walruses on Round Island, you are limited as to how close you can get (in order not to disturb them). For my walrus and puffin photographs showing individuals and their behaviors, I used a 500mm lens, often with a 1.4x extender, on a DSLR with a full frame sensor. For views of the whole group, you can use more typical lenses. If you have a DSLR with a smaller sensor (an Canon Rebel, for example), you will be able to use a 300mm lens with 1.4x and 2x extenders to get really good close photographs because of the magnification effect of using a smaller sensor. Let me know if you want additional recommendations or would like me to explain something further.

      The Round Island trip is absolutely wonderful! I hope you can go and experience the wonders there first-hand. And thank you for your kind comments about my weblog.


  4. went to round island in 2003. my only regret was that it was dianes first year and us her first group and she refused to let us climb the spine. she said it was too dangerous. it’s a beautiful place, hoping to return next summer for a repeat trip. there were no steps when we went and the cook tent was brand new. great to see the pictures and get an update, especially as we plan next years trip. great pictures. thanks, betsy

  5. breezypark Says:

    enjoyed your post. went to round island several years back. the cook tent had just been put up, no stairs exixted and it was dianes first year out there. she refused to allow us to climb up the spine having decided it was too dangerous. my only disappointment of the trip. beautiful place. plan to return next summer again. hear the numbers are down. one day we had over 3000 walrus on the island. seems i alway get better camera gear and then wonder what pictures i could have gotten if i’d had this or that.

    • leerentz Says:

      We saw a maximum of about 600 walrus, but the numbers were not important to us; we saw and photographed to our heart’s content. I hope you get a chance to go again, and if you do, perhaps you could post a synopsis of your experiences here. Thank you for your comment!


  6. wasn’t sure if you are aware but funding will soon be cut for round island services. it requires just under $100,000/year to fund the biologists being out there. this summer is supposedly last summer they will be there. have started group on facebook to try and start conversation to try and protect this amazing place. hopefully i will soon get a web site up of same name and if i can figure it out perhaps a non-profit to help raise funds and be an advocate. just wanted to let you know and ask you to spread the word. Walrus Advocates of Round Island Sanctuary (WARIS) thanks, betsy palfreyman


  7. […] Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska […]


  8. […] here for the Alaska walrus-cam website! And this blog describes a visitor’s experiences on Round […]


  9. […] here for the Alaska walrus-cam website! And this blog describes a visitor’s experiences on Round […]

  10. Thiah Doherty Says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your article, you descriptions are very visual.
    I have had the good fortune of viewing videos that my daughter Sierra~Rose Doherty took, as she had the splendid opportunity to go to Round Island as a representative of ADF&G.
    Thank you for for the splendid article and wondrous photos!
    Thiah Doherty

  11. Valerie Osborne Says:

    I was working at the fish cannery in Togiak, AK. in the 80’s. Marlon Brando came to the Village of Togiak, hired an Eskimo, and his boat, to take him and whoever else wanted to go, to Round Island. It was incredible!!! I was very grateful and appreciative to spend time with Marlon Brando, a quiet man, by the way….that he took the 6 of us out to the Island.The captain estimated around 2000 walruses!!! Piled high on each other…what a sight!!! A lot of wildlife to be seen!!! One of the best memories of living in Alaska!! It was spectacular!!!! I will cherish the trip forever!!!


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