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Totems: Walrus, Part 1

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


Maybe it’s the freezing Arctic winds and icy weather that make our tribe gather closely together to swim, hunt, mate, and rest. Adversity can make one appreciate the warmth and acceptance of family, both nuclear and extended. No one can survive for long completely alone. WE ARE WALRUS, denizens of ice and sea. Do you realize that our fates are interlinked, yours and ours? Whatever fate befalls us, and our habitat, which is warming rapidly, also befalls you. Higher sea levels will alter all ecosystems, jeopardizing life on Earth. What affects one species affects all. Will you come to care for us as sentient beings, and begin making decisions that benefit all life, or will you continue to ignore the truth that all life is related?

Twenty million years ago, bear-like carnivores meandered into the bays of the Northern Pacific. Their ancestral family, Enaliarctidae are now extinct, leaving walrus as the sole surviving member of the Odobenidae family. Though they are the same species – Odobenus rosmarus, the North Atlantic walrus is a different sub-species from the North Pacific walrus. At one time, the Pacific walrus had become extinct; however, about seventy thousand years ago, the Atlantic walrus swam across newly available sea channels, which had heretofore been impassable, thereby repopulating the walrus-less northern Pacific. When the Arctic pack ice refroze once again, preventing any intermingling, the two sub-species evolved independently and continue to do so.

Pinnipeds like walruses, and their cousins, the seals and sea lions have torpedo-shaped bodies, and limbs that have been modified to become flippers; therefore, walruses are superbly adapted to spend two-thirds of their time in water, moving gracefully. On land, they look like Sumo wrestlers, their hulking bodies lumbering along clumsily. Even so, they must come onto land to rest and to breed. They lack external ear flaps, but like eared seals, they can bend their hind flippers forward, which enables them to walk on all fours. Foreflippers are stiffened by bones that have evolved from the limb bones of ancestral land animals, but are shortened and modified. The flippers are rough and wart-like on the underside to help them grip when on smooth ice. Unlike sea lions, which normally travel at about 18 m.p.h., walruses propel themselves along at about 4 to 5 m.p.h. using their hind flippers, although brief bursts of speeds of about 20 m.p.h. are possible when needed.

A walrus can dive 300 feet down to feed on the ocean floor, and they can stay underwater for as long as 25 minutes. When they plunge, their heart rate immediately drops from 50 -100 beats per minute, all the way down to 10 beats or less, permitting them to stretch oxygen reserves. The remaining blood flow goes to the brain. Both male and female walruses have tusks, and tusk size, along with body girth often determines rank. The largest walruses dominate the herd. Though males are always larger than females, females also use their tusks to protect their offspring from predators, and to determine rank among the cows. Those formidable-looking tusks are walrus’s most distinctive feature, because they keep growing their whole lives, and therefore get very long. Their tusks also help them drag their heavy bodies around in the water on the ocean bottom, and haul themselves onto ice floes. In fact, their generic name, Odobenus means, “tooth walker.”

Do you wish you had the tools in hand to make your life better right now? Are you suffering from a lack of initiative, or the willpower to follow through in order to make a change in your life? As keepers of ancient wisdom and knowledge, the spirit medicine of the walrus can help show you how to do these things. There’s a good chance their medicine will help you learn new things, or use what you already have to good advantage. Their medicine brings up the ability to first, observe a situation, and then dig beneath the surface to uncover what may be hidden. Perhaps you’ve run into a situation where it’s come to light that something or someone hasn’t been quite up front about something important. Walrus may come in a dream, or seeing pictures of them may feel significant to you; indeed, they may be trying to show you who is being real and who isn’t. Then, it will be crucial for you to trust that guidance, and act on it.

Walruses are extremely social animals – which doesn’t mean that they get along with each other. Among themselves, when they are on ice, or more frequently, because of shrinking ice masses – on land, they gather closely in large numbers. Atlantic walrus herds can number in the hundreds, and Pacific walruses gather in the thousands. Evolutionally, it makes sense for them to preserve body heat in this way. Gathering in a herd also enables them to have a quicker response to any approaching danger. Male and female Pacific walruses live separately in herds except for mating once a year in the winter. Females migrate with their pups along the extent of the ice pack.

If they don’t have to act, people with this totem active in their lives will usually not take the initiative to act in a leadership role. They prefer to be one of the crowd, unless provoked by someone directing aggression at them. Is it time to find kindred spirits with whom to share common interests? Even though alone time is valuable, too much time alone can make one morose and depressed. It also affects health and life span.

Most of the time, walruses are lounging or sleeping (and also snoring, farting, and sneezing). If you watch a video of them sleeping, they are constantly nuzzling each other, and moving around in a somewhat quarrelsome way because they don’t like being disturbed while asleep. It’s pretty amazing that they can negotiate their tusks so that they are not constantly stabbing their neighbors. But, if one is accidentally nudged by its neighbor, it’s likely to retaliate with a slap to any convenient neighbor, who then lets out a roar, and who passes the slap on, until the whole colony is in turmoil. Therefore, if this totem is in your life, it’s important not to act rashly or childishly, or jump to conclusions when a situation gets heated.

What do we do when someone rubs us the wrong way? In these times of ever-increasing violence, it’s more important than ever to promote peaceful ways of solving conflicts, like walking away if there’s no positive communication, and by practicing how to co-exist peacefully by accepting others as they are. We don’t have to include people in our lives who don’t treat us well, or with whom we have very different values, but there is never an excuse for violence.

The North Atlantic walrus lives in shallow water along the continental shelf, especially the northern reaches of Hudson Bay; then, following the pack ice, and migrating south when the ice extends in winter in the Atlantic Arctic. In spring when the ice begins to melt, they travel back to the far north. Most of the Pacific population spends the winter in the Bering Sea, then, from July to September, they spend the summer in the Chukchi Sea along the northern tip of Alaska at the edge of the permanent ice cap. If you have a dream or vision about walrus, it may portend that a trip or extended travel is in your future.

Females lead the migration with their newborn calves. Later, in a separate herd, the males follow. Most of them, that is. Not all walruses migrate, however. Thousands of males head for the hauling grounds off the coasts of Alaska and Siberia. A few thousand bulls remain in the south during the summer doing what is called, hauling out, which means coming ashore, on islands around Bristol Bay, like Round Island, Alaska – part of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary – which is uninhabited by humans.

Migrating walruses can travel more than 1,800 miles each year. They prefer to use ice rather than land to travel in winter. But how do they get into the water with all that thick ice? Turns out, one advantage to having those heavy heads that they do is that they can use them to break open ice that is up to 9 inches thick. If they have retreated into the water to escape a ferocious storm, they later use their heads and tusks to break through the ice from below to create small breathing holes.

There’s a difference between being hard-headed about something and staying the course. If you’re having trouble differentiating between the two, some emotional healing may be warranted. Walrus Medicine helps us open to, and develop, our upper chakra qualities: our clairvoyant abilities, and the ability to open to guidance and follow through with it. This is different from being stubborn and inflexible about an issue. It’s a strength to be able to adapt and find common ground, so that the health and well-being of an entire community is taken into consideration.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 45 years; author of this column for 21 years. Send your email address if you wish to be notified with a link to Wisdom when a new Totems article comes out. In-person healing sessions are available once again on an individual basis, as well as long-distance healing. Call or email for more details and to arrange an appointment. Phone: 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com For a print version of Totems for Stewards of the Earth,Vol. 1 - delivery U.S., send $22 to P.O. 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370


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