ROUND ISLAND: Walrus Sanctuary in Peril

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks, has decided to close the camp on Round Island after this year. The campsites will be abandoned, and tourism to Togiak and Round Island will become a distant memory.

Pacific Walrus male portrait showing tusks and nodulesPacific Walrus male

Horned Puffin on cliffHorned Puffin near our campsite

There are times that remain hazy and golden in my memories; times when life came to a peak of wonder that is only rarely experienced. Five days on Round Island was one of those defining times in my life.

In 2009 my wife and I flew to Alaska, then took a second flight to Dillingham on the west coast, then boarded a beat-up puddle jumper to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak, then sped by tiny boat, piloted by a man of that Eskimo village, across part of Bristol Bay to Round Island, where we were greeted by Alaska Fish and Game staff. We set up camp on the small island, on platforms erected atop campsites used by ancient peoples, then set off exploring the island. Within a minute we were watching a Horned Puffin about 50 feet away standing atop a rock jutting out over the ocean. Later that day we watched half a dozen Pacific Walrus stretched out, resting atop a flat rock near shore.

Walruses and Dragon's Tail on Round IslandFlat Rock with first view of walruses, with Dragon’s Tail in the distance

Windy day in camp, Round Island, AlaskaOur expedition tent enduring high winds

Headlands Trail on Round Island on windy dayTrail along the grassy headlands near camp

Sanctuary Office on Round IslandStaff quarters and sanctuary headquarters

As the days went by, we listened to giant blubbery walruses singing sweetly. Endangered Steller Sea Lions performed synchronized swimming as their “Jabba the Hutt” harem defender gazed out imperiously. Wildflowers were at their peak, including the bright yellow Alaska Poppy. Red Foxes trotted around the island unseen by us, like ghosts of the landscape. Beaches were entirely filled with pink walruses resting after days of diving deep into the ocean. A high wind came up and rattled the tent with its terror all night. Parakeet Auklets gossiped constantly on the rocks below. A Tufted Puffin watched us watching him, and only snuck into his burrow when we glanced away briefly.

Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's TailDragon’s Tail and its walruses from the top of the island

Pacific Walrus males on haulout at Dragon's TailTide’s coming in!

Castle-like formation on Round IslandJagged rock formations atop Round Island’s peak

As I said, it was a peak experience, but those of you who are long-time readers of my blog know that I have already written at length about our Round Island experiences in these blogs:

Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

I Am the Walrus

Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

So, why am I returning to Round Island in this blog? Because I passionately love this place and I believe that it is in danger.

Pacific Walrus threat postures in a haulout

Pacific Walrus tusk and shadow

Pacific Walruses sparring in the waters off Round Island

Pacific Walrus male pale from deep ocean diveWatching the walruses basking and sparring and emerging from the depths is always entertaining

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks, has decided to close the camp on Round Island after this year. There will be no seasonal staff to serve as island stewards, and the important work they’ve done in scientifically monitoring walrus and sea lion numbers will be abandoned. The campsites will be abandoned, and tourism to Togiak and Round Island will become a distant memory.

Why do I care? Because this is one of the greatest places in the world to experience wildlife that is not behind bars. Yes, there are a few walruses protected in zoos. After returning from Round Island, we went to see walruses in the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washingon. It was a profoundly sad experience. The walruses had lost their tusks completely, as they often do in captivity. They were trained to open their mouths to have their teeth brushed and to take a fish on command, then they would swim a pattern back and forth, back and forth, in the big tank lined with fake rock. This is not how sentient creatures should live.

Swimming Steller Sea LionsSteller Sea Lion harem and young out for a swim

Pacific Walrus exhalingWe could often hear the walruses coming up for a deep breath

Pacific Walrus portrait

People need to see wild creatures in wild places, and that’s where Round Island shines. After we left the island, the next visitors coming were high school students from all over Alaska, camping on the island for days to study the wildlife of that magnificent place. The memories of that experience will remain with them for their entire lives. When we were there, the other visitors were two men from Manhattan, making their second trip to Round Island. Photographers and videographers from all over the world have come here to create a record of walrus behavior. Including me.

Alaska PoppyDelicate Alaska Poppies, one of scores of kinds of wildflowers at the height of summer blooming during our visit

Tufted Puffin at burrow entranceWary Tufted Puffin

Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayBlowing bubbles while surfacing

Cook tent on Round IslandShelter provided for campers to eat and hang out during times of high winds and rain

Dramatic clouds over Round Island summitLooking up at the top of the mountain during a morning of unsettled weather

Alaska Fish and Game claims that they might still issue some permits to visit the island, but I suspect those will be few and far between. Instead, we are more likely to have surreptitious visitors shooting walruses for the ivory, and boats and planes buzzing the walruses and creating panicked stampedes that will trample and kill individuals. People will be able to land on the island with nobody knowing, and will undoubtedly force walruses away from the beaches. The island will no longer be a sanctuary.

Is this speculation on my part? Of course, but it is informed speculation based upon my experience on the island. When we were there, we felt that the two staff members were extremely serious about their jobs, and that their first priority was to protect the walruses. When we were seen by the refuge manager watching walruses from atop a cliff, we were told in no uncertain terms to crouch down so that our silhouettes wouldn’t scare the walruses off their rock. I felt bad at violating the rules, and in retrospect I’m glad that someone was there to keep protection of the walruses as top priority.

Abandoning the camp on Round Island would save $95,000 per year, which I think is a drop in the bucket compared to the lost opportunities for environmental education and tourism in the region, which bring far more dollars than that to the Alaskan economy (our trip alone added $5,000 to the Alaska economy–it isn’t cheap to get to remote places!).

Can this decision be modified or reversed? Who knows? All we can do is try. If Alaska Fish and Game is adamant that they are going to save money this way, perhaps they could come up with a Memorandum of Understanding with The Nature Conservancy or another not-for-profit to operate the island as a sanctuary with a provision for allowing visitors to come and camp. Perhaps the National Park Service should buy it from Alaska and operate it as a national park unit, similar to the manner in which Channel Islands National Park off the California coast in operated. Perhaps an Eskimo corporation could run it. Maybe volunteers could assist a paid staff member. Perhaps the University of Alaska could run the visitor operations in conjunction with research. Since the infrastructure is already there, it would be obscene to just abandon it, and it seems that the state has not explored these and other avenues for protecting the sanctuary.

In the meantime, if you would like to write a rational and passionate letter supporting the continued use of Round Island as a place to view Alaska’s native wildlife, please contact:

Alaska Department of

Fish and Game

P.O. Box 115526

1255 W. 8th Street

Juneau, AK 99811-5526

Or email them from their website:

Leaving Round Island, AlaskaSadly leaving the island

Charter boat loading passengers for trip back to TogiakFerrying gear to the small boat just prior to departure

Karen Rentz and PiperThe small plane we arrived on in the Eskimo village of Togiak

Laundry on the line, Togiak, AlaskaDaily scene in Togiak

Air drying Sockeye SalmonSome of the Sockeye Salmon from Bristol Bay smoking at an Eskimo smokehouse in Togiak; the Sockeye Salmon fishery here is called the most sustainable fishery in the world, but the Pebble Mine proposed in the watershed could change that. That is another important environmental issue facing the region (see below for a link to more information).


For what could be your last chance to visit this enchanting isle, go to

To read the article that announced the closure of Round Island, go to Round Island Closure

To read what Trout Unlimited has to say about the Pebble Mine, go to Save Bristol Bay

To see my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography




4th of July in an Eskimo Village

America has a wondrous array of interesting places and cultures, including the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak, located on the remote shores of Bristol Bay in Alaska.


Piper airplane cockpitPilot at the Piper’s controls during the short hop across taiga and tundra from Dillingham to Togiak, in which Karen and I were the only passengers

A bumpy 70 mile plane ride from Dillingham to Togiak, Alaska, took us over Black Spruce taiga, which soon gave way to pond-splattered tundra and rugged hills.  Karen Rentz on PiperWe were the only two passengers on the long-in-service PenAir Piper; when Karen asked if we could take pictures in the air, the pilot joked “as long as I’m not doing anything illegal!”

From the air we photographed the meandering rivers and beautiful green tundra landscapes, with ponds speckled by lily pads.  Looking down, I saw a Brown Bear digging in the earth, going after Arctic Ground Squirrels or favorite roots.  As we approached the coast, we sailed over the village

of Twin Hills and took in the view over Bristol Bay and out to the Bering Sea.  The village of Togiak, huddled along the coast below, was our destination.

Togiak River delta

Aerial view of the Togiak River Delta where it enters Bristol Bay

Togiak, Alaska, aerial view

The Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak is strung along Bristol Bay

Togiak was to be the staging area for our trip to Round Island, a Pacific Walrus sanctuary in Bristol Bay off the Alaskan coast, which is accessible only by a chartered boat.  Many Round Island visitors spend numerous days in Togiak, because frequent high winds make the journey impossible in a small craft.  In fact, a couple of men from Manhattan, who shared the island experience with us, had an extra wind day added to both the beginning and end of their trip.

After landing in a cloud of dust on the gravel airstrip, we climbed down the wing to the ground, then dumped our duffels into the open back of a late-model red Dodge pickup.  The native driver asked where we were going; when we said Esther’s B and B, he knew exactly where to take us, which was only a few blocks away.

Actually, there were a few other cars and trucks in this village, which stretches for maybe a mile along Bristol Bay, and we counted three school buses.  But mostly people got around town by four-wheel ATVs, ATV in Togiak, Alaskaand by snow machines during the long winter.  This town, like most along the coast, is isolated, with no roads connecting it to other Alaskan settlements.  Supplies are brought in by air and by ocean-going barges.

Over 90% of residents are Eskimos; their lives are a blend of traditional subsistence and modern conveniences.  There were brilliant red Sockeye Salmon drying on racks in the warm sunshine, with delicious belly strips of salmon curing in a smokehouse, while satellite dishes beamed in Nickelodeon and the daily soaps to appreciative young and old audiences.  Walrus and seals are shot for food each autumn, but there is also a well-lit supermarket Air-drying Sockeye Salmonwith fresh produce and plenty of junk food.  By the way, when we asked Esther what Walrus tastes like, she said it looked like dark beef but tasted like clams!

This Yup’ik Eskimo village has been in the general location for at least 2,000 years; the earliest dwellings were long ago replaced with an assortment of several hundred weathered houses, stores, and service buildings.  According to the 2000 census, 809 people live in the village.  Based on the number of young Eskimo children and pregnant women we saw, the next census will see a substantial jump.  The median age in town is a very young 23.

Bristol Bay and the Togiak River are famous for their fisheries.  Paul Markoff, our charter boat operator ( out the cannery across the bay from the village.  During our visit, many of the village’s men and boys were out in the bay fishing; some of the catch is for themselves; most is wholesaled to Togiak Fisheries, the local fish processor.  Paul pointed out that much of this is sold in Costco stores around America. The Togiak River sports runs of Sockeye, Chinook, Silver, Pink, and Chum Salmon, and is the destination of sport fishermen who fly in to several fishing resorts.

Since we were visiting on Independence Day, there were special celebrations going on.  We went to the beach bonfire, which was hosted by the cannery and attended by scores of local children, who toasted marshmallows over the flames and smushed them into a graham cracker sandwich with a chocolate bar.  Mmmmm.  Actually, we’re a bit old to enjoy s’mores, but we enjoyed watching the cute Eskimo kids havingEskimo woman and child on ATV a good time.  Several little girls were piling gravel into the bottom of their shirts, folding the cloth over, and pretending they were pregnant.  One girl asked us why we were wearing our down jackets; after all, it was a warm summer evening.  I guess Eskimos have a different tolerance toward cold!


Yup'ik Eskimo women and children in Togiak, AlaskaYup’ik Eskimo women and children enjoying a 4th of July bonfire on the beach

Speaking of cold, Paul Markoff said that the winters get to be really long.  The bay in front of town freezes completely, and even part of Bristol Bay freezes over, as temperatures sometimes drop to -40°F.  The dusk of winter daytime last four or five Homes in Togiak, Alaskahours, and this is a time to hunker down and dream of spring.  But, since the people have snow machines, they can also take long trips in the winter.  Paul spoke of people who made the overland trek to Dillingham on their machines.  Togiak, like many native villages, is a dry town, with no alcohol to be in the possession of anyone at any time.  Marijuana is another matter, with weed being the drug of choice by some of the village folk (as it is throughout much of Alaska).

Later on the 4th, there were to be traditional fireworks over the town, but we were too tired to partake.  Besides, fireworks at midnight during the perpetual light twilight of an Alaska summer night is not quite the same as seeing them against a dark sky.  Eskimos are patriotic Americans, with a tradition of proud service in wartime.  Interestingly, Yup’ik Eskimos also live across the Bering Sea–in Russian Siberia.  The old tribal roots don’t fit so neatly into the politics and allegiances of the modern world.

Upon our return from Round Island, Paul Markoff took us on an ATV tour of town.  We visited his family’s salmon drying and smoking racks, and went into the house of an elder craftsman, Willie Wassillie,who made art objects from Walrus tusk Willie Wassillie, Ivory Carverivory.  We looked at his wonderful carvings, and selected a miniature Walrus to purchase.  He spoke little or no English, so his wife interpreted for us.  Meanwhile, we were interrupting her watching of Days of Our Lives, which was showing on the living room TV.  Traditional and contemporary America side by side in the home of a Yup’ik Eskimo.




Willie Wassillie, a Togiak Eskimo and master craftsman in the medium of Walrus ivory.  Upon returning home, we were able to view several additional pieces of his work at  This Walrus ivory is taken from animals hunted sustainably and for subsistence.








Laundry on the line, Togiak, AlaskaFishing boat shares the beach with laundry sustainably drying



Bike in TogiakA bicycle in Togiak gets less use than the modern ATVs that are used everywhere in this small village as the preferred way to get around



No alcohol in Togiak, AlaskaTogiak is a dry village, with no alcohol allowed anywhere



Paul Markoff ATV tour of Togiak, AlaskaKaren Rentz taking an ATV tour of Togiak with Captain Paul Markoff.


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


I am the Walrus


Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!


Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska