The disruption from the climate emergency being experienced by marine wildlife reached a new high in the first week of Cop26, when a female walrus was discovered sleeping on a submarine in a naval base in North Holland.
Walruses normally live in the polar regions – several hundred miles north. This particular animal is one of at least two of the species that have been seen far from their Arctic habitat. Another wandering walrus, seen off the Scilly Islands, France, Spain and West Cork, Ireland, has since been sighted back in Icelandic waters.
Freya, as the animal has been named, is the first of her species to visit the Netherlands in 23 years. She was spotted snoozing on a submarine in the naval port of Den Helder by Jeroen Hoekendijk, a Dutch scientist specialising in marine mammals.
She appears to be in good health, although Hoekendijk – who observed the animal feeding on razor clams earlier – noted a raw wound in her front flippers. She is thought to have swum south, following the Danish and German coasts. (Suggestions that she or the ‘Irish’ walrus might have been cast adrift on a broken ice floe were widely ridiculed by marine scientists.)
Hoekendijk was instructed that he wasn’t allowed to board the vessel to photograph the animal, only to be told; ‘But you can walk on it.’ He also noted that the vessel happens to be a ‘Walrus-class submarine’ – and is named Zr. Ms. Dolfijn.
Social media users quipped that the Arctic mammal showed an “excellent example of animal-initiated civil resistance”, and that “considering military are huge contributors to carbon emissions, the walrus is probably protesting climate justice”. Others, however, thought it was very nice of the Dutch navy not to kick the walrus off their boat.
But walruses are not just recent visitors to these southern waters. In 1456, William Caxton, the medieval chronicler and printer, recorded a walrus in the Thames (along with a swordfish and 20 whales). Caxton warned that the beast’s appearance was a sign of trouble to come. Although that might have been for the walruses themselves, since they were slaughtered for their thick hide, which was made into ropes, and for their tusks, which were carved into ivory objects such as the famous Lewis chess pieces.
And five hundred years ago this year, in 1521, the Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, a great chronicler of the natural world, drew perhaps the first modern image of a walrus, said to have been stranded in ‘Netherlandish waters’. The sepia drawing goes on show in a major exhibition of Durer’s work at the National Gallery in London later this month.