Pacific Walruses Fight to Survive in the Rapidly Warming Arctic

There’s a moment about five minutes into the critically-acclaimed 2022 documentary short “Haulout,” which was nominated in January for an Oscar, that feels like a scene from a horror movie. The screen snaps from a shot of wild landscape into total black; floorboards creak under the weight of solitary footsteps; and wind howls as if through a tunnel. Strange, feral sounds grow in the darkness. A headlamp is switched on, illuminating Maxim Chakilev, a marine biologist, who is sitting at a bare table. Only his hands and the sleeves of his sweater are visible in the lamp’s white glare. 

Chakilev stands, turns off the lamp and opens a door to the weak sunlight outside, revealing the source of the unfamiliar sounds: Pacific walruses. There are so many of them, and so tightly packed together, that the view through the cabin’s doorway is now only sea, sky and walruses. 

What was a desolate Arctic beach has become a writhing mass of tusks, flippers and whiskers. Their huge bodies fill the door frame and tumble in roiling waves down toward the water. The walruses emit an almost prehistoric cacophony of grunts, groans and roars.

Absorbing this scene–which shows a 2020 walrus haulout in the remote Chukotka region of Russia–is like finding yourself trapped in the middle of a hostile invasion. The flimsy cabin is surrounded on all sides; there is no way out. In the haulout, thousands of animals hoist themselves onto land, risking trampling, because the Arctic sea ice where they normally rest before continuing on to feeding grounds is disappearing. 

Filmmakers Evgenia Arbugaeva and her brother Maxim Arbugaev spent three and a half months living with Chakilev on this isolated shoreline, called Cape Serdtse-Kamen, in his tiny, sparse hut, observing him as he observes the walruses. The haulout in 2020 lasted for nearly three weeks in total, the longest Chakilev had yet documented in his 10 years of studying it.

“I felt that I was in the film ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and there was the army of orcs,” Arbugaeva told NPR’s The Pulse in an interview about witnessing the haulout firsthand. “It was scary.” The walruses’ size, numbers and their guttural, chainsaw barks might make them seem like an angry horde, but Arbugaeva was not afraid of the walruses; she was afraid for them. 

“It was scary because they’re not aggressive animals, especially when they’re on the beach. They’re really vulnerable, and they’re so easily scared,” she said. “You could hear the animals struggling. You could hear some high-pitched voices of cubs that are looking for their mothers.” During the haulout, Arbugaeva said, they couldn’t use the stove or generator in the cabin because the smoke and noise could spook the walruses, inciting panic and stampedes. 

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that what you’re watching is not so much a horror movie as a tragedy. The dangerous overcrowding of the haulout is the direct result of climate change, we learn in the closing minutes of the film. Chakilev estimated that there were 100,000 walruses gathered at the haulout’s peak in the fall of 2020. 

“Walruses rely on sea ice to rest during feeding and migration,” text in the film explains. Melting ice forces the walruses “to spend more time on land, where they are at risk of stampedes and trampling.” The animals in this film are exhausted, suffering and frightened, and far more trapped by their circumstances than the humans are. Six hundred walruses died in the 2020 haulout, a record to match the one set that earlier year for the hottest temperature ever measured in the Arctic.

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During the haulout, several walruses try to squeeze into the cabin, their bulk straining against the thin walls. Adult Pacific walruses can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, but Chakilev gently shoos the visitors outside with a broom. “One at a time,” he says to them as they shuffle out. A wounded cub, who has somehow wriggled into an adjoining room, stares at the camera with pain in its eyes, looking not unlike a lost puppy. 

“That was a very difficult situation, because this cub got stuck in the hut. It was injured, and it was just slowly dying,” Arbugaeva said, in an interview with the film podcast Top Docs. “There was nothing we could do. We couldn’t just put it back in the sea of walruses where he would be suffocated right away. All this time, I’m thinking, what can I do?” Chakilev told her to let the walrus “die in peace,” but Arbugaeva struggled. “That was hard to watch,” she said.

When the haulout is over, and the walruses have receded like a tidal wave, Chakilev walks along the water’s edge, examining the bloated corpses left behind like a detective cataloging the casualties of a massacre. He stops at the body of a walrus with a cub beside it. “Female, six to nine years,” he says into an audio recorder. “Died about five to seven days ago. And a calf. Died recently.” But then the smaller walrus moves, laying its muzzle on top of the older walrus’ back. It looks up at Chakilev from the sand, and he corrects himself. “No, alive,” he says. “Very weak. An orphan.” As he leaves, the baby swims a few feet into the surf, bobbing and alone.  

The more you understand about what is going on, the more difficult it is to keep watching “Haulout.” The voices of the walruses no longer seem intimidating, only desperate. The threat that global warming poses to Pacific walruses has been recognized by official agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Marine Mammal Commission, but they are not currently listed as an endangered species, something that conservation groups want to change. Arctic sea ice is now shrinking at a rate of 12.6 percent per decade, and a 2022 report predicted that there will be no summer sea ice left in the Arctic by 2050. Arbugaeva has said that she and her brother hoped to convey to audiences the truth about the walruses’ fate.

“We made this film because we wanted to show people what really is happening in the Arctic, and we wanted to make it in the way that is not heavily message-driven or narrated,” she told NPR. “We wanted people to see for themselves that this is the reality that animals in the Arctic are facing, and that we need to do something about it.”

By the end of the film, as Chakilev closes up the hut for the season and trudges out through a blizzard, that uncomfortable reality—and our own complicity in its perpetuation—becomes undeniable. “Haulout” is a horror movie after all, although not in the way it seems at the outset. The monster isn’t growling outside the door, threatening to break in. The monster is us.

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