Beginning this week, there are two new reasons to visit the Vancouver Aquarium, as two new young walruses have now taken up residence at the new Research Outpost exhibit.
For Vancouverites and visitors alike, this will be the first time in the Aquarium’s 62-year history that they will get up close and connect with these charismatic Arctic animals, while learning about the unique characteristics and the challenges faced by their counterparts.
In another first, Vancouver Aquarium has opened up its longstanding research centre for visitors. The Research Outpost provides a window on the once behind-the-scenes area and gives visitors the opportunity to observe groundbreaking marine mammal studies.
Lakina and Balzak – our city’s new Walruses – will be seen at Research Outpost at select times throughout the day.
Visitors can watch them interact with the marine mammal trainers while practicing husbandry behaviours and training to support research studies.
They will have the chance to hear the wide variety of vocalizations that walruses are able to make like ‘roar’ and ‘sputter,’ as well as see Lakina and Balzak enjoying play sessions with toys, ice, bubbles, and more as they strengthen relationships with their trainers.
Visitors will also see other pinnipeds – Steller sea lions and Northern fur seals – interact with the marine mammal trainers during husbandry, research, and enrichment sessions throughout the day. The Research Outpost is an extension of the west coast fishing village-themed Steller’s Bay which opened on July 1, 2017.
Lakina and Balzak – the first walruses to be born in human care in Canada – arrived weeks apart in May 2016 at Aquarium du Québec and quickly won the hearts of staff and visitors.
The half-siblings moved to the Vancouver Aquarium late last year and, with animal care teams from both aquariums working in close collaboration, quickly settled into their new home.
“From the moment they arrived last December, we have been charmed by Lakina and Balzak,” said Troy Neale, assistant curator of marine mammals at Vancouver Aquarium. “These two-year-old walruses are curious and playful, and every interaction with them is unique.”
Over the past six months, he added, “our team has been working behind the scenes to develop strong, trusting relationships with these animals, which is crucial for their care, and watching them grow and learn. In turn, we’ve learned so much from them.”
Female walrus Lakina and male walrus Balzak weigh approximately 300 kgs and 400 kgs, respectively. They are growing at a rapid rate, averaging a 15 kg gain per month. Exhibiting sexual dimorphism, fully grown female walruses weigh 1,250 to 1,700 kgs while males weigh 2,700 to 3,700 kgs. Thick skin and a blubber layer keep these animals warm in icy waters.
Ivory tusks or modified canine teeth help these strong yet rotund and relatively short-flippered animals haul out on ice floes or rocky shores.
For males, tusks also help establish social dominance. Tusks begin growing in the first three to four months of a walrus’ life and can continue to grow for approximately 15 years, reaching lengths of 80 cm for females and 100 cm for males.
Resembling a rather impressive moustache, walruses have dense whiskers called vibrissae. There are 400 to 700 vibrissae organized in 13 to 15 rows across the mystacial pad and each is connected to a muscle as well as a nerve and blood supply. Capable of lifting, separating, and scrunching the mystacial pad, a walrus’ sensitive whiskers are a perfect tool for hunting sessile food like clams, mussels, and sea cucumbers in the dark waters near the ocean floor.
Walruses have incredible vocal capabilities and are able to make a variety of sounds including a grunt, roar, whistle, and even a ringing bell.