Walruses drove sailors insane through gonging

25 Apr

I heard today that, during the age of arctic exploration, sailors sometimes reported hearing strange music. They’d be walking out on the pack ice, already a dangerous and lonely place, when the sound of church bells or gongs would appear out of nowhere. These songs could go on for hours. More than one sailor believed they were going insane.

Apparently, what they were hearing was the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus). They males can perform intricate songs and vocalizations for the females which can include a distinctive ringing noise. Almost exactly like bells. Who knew?


Update!: Watch as E.T. the walrus sings for the crowd! Courtesy of Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

Sources: National Geographic Photography, anecdote

1 Comment

Posted by on April 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


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One response to “Walruses drove sailors insane through gonging

  1. Matthew Gray

    August 15, 2012 at 1:06 am

    This is a bit from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea PART II: 14. The South Pole, 1870, with curly brackets of updated information by me.

    “Most of these seals were sleeping on the rocks or the sand. Among those properly termed seals–which have no external ears{the family Phocidae}, unlike sea lions whose ears protrude–I observed several varieties of the species stenorhynchus {a long legged underwater crab}, three meters long, with white hair, bulldog heads, and armed with ten teeth in each jaw: four incisors in both the upper and lower{can’t find evidence of 4 lower incisors, but some do have many upper which is really cool. Hydrurga leptonyx teeth – – The Weddell seal, Leptonychotes weddellii, lives 20 years, compared to an average life expectancy of 40 years for most other seals because it lives under antarctic ice and must cut holes to breath and exit and wears out its teeth and dies of starvation, how sad}, plus two big canines shaped like the fleur-de-lis{ and no, I don’t think there is a resemblance to a fleur-de-lis}. Among them slithered some sea elephants {genus Mirounga}, a type of seal with a short, flexible trunk; these are the giants of the species {Mirounga is a genus, not species, that consists of Northern and Southern elephant seals}, with a circumference of twenty feet and a length of ten meters {known to be 2.6(female) to 5.8(maximum male lenghh) meters long}. They didn’t move as we approached.

    “Are these animals dangerous?” Conseil asked me.

    “Only if they’re attacked,” I replied. “But when these giant seals defend their little ones, their fury is dreadful, and it isn’t rare for them to smash a fisherman’s longboat to bits.” {O rly?}

    “They’re within their rights,” Conseil answered.

    “I don’t say nay.”

    Two miles farther on, we were stopped by a promontory that screened the bay from southerly winds. It dropped straight down to the sea, and surf foamed against it. From beyond this ridge there came fearsome bellows, such as a herd of cattle might produce.

    “Gracious,” Conseil put in, “a choir of bulls?”

    “No,” I said, “a choir of walruses.”{WHAT!? The Walrus is from the arctic, not antarctic,}

    “Are they fighting with each other?”

    “Either fighting or playing.”

    “With all due respect to master, this we must see.”

    “Then see it we must, Conseil.”

    And there we were, climbing these blackish rocks amid sudden landslides and over stones slippery with ice. More than once I took a tumble at the expense of my backside. Conseil, more cautious or more stable, barely faltered and would help me up, saying:

    “If master’s legs would kindly adopt a wider stance, master will keep his balance.”

    Arriving at the topmost ridge of this promontory, I could see vast white plains covered with walruses. These animals were playing among themselves. They were howling not in anger but in glee.

    Walruses resemble seals in the shape of their bodies and the arrangement of their limbs. But their lower jaws lack canines and incisors, and as for their upper canines, they consist of two tusks eighty centimeters long{can reach a length of 1 m, wow!} with a circumference of thirty-three centimeters at the socket. Made of solid ivory, without striations, harder than elephant tusks, and less prone to yellowing, these teeth are in great demand. Accordingly, walruses are the victims of a mindless hunting that soon will destroy them all, since their hunters indiscriminately slaughter pregnant females and youngsters, and over 4,000 individuals are destroyed annually.{This, I believe is the only time in book where Professor Aronnax is ever concerned about the population of a species.}

    Passing near these unusual animals, I could examine them at my leisure since they didn’t stir. Their hides were rough and heavy, a tan color leaning toward a reddish brown; their coats were short and less than abundant. Some were four meters long{reasonable}. More tranquil and less fearful than their northern relatives, they posted no sentinels on guard duty at the approaches to their campsite.”


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