Polly Hessing remembers the night a sleepless visitor to Round Island mistook a singing walrus for an acoustic guitarist.
"Walrus vocalizations are very beautiful and unique," she said. "They sound like harps. We actually had a camper come by one night who said, 'Somebody is playing guitar and I can't find out where they are,' It was a walrus."
Hessing spent five summers as a caretaker on Round Island, the centerpiece of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, a group of seven craggy islands about 75 miles west of Dillingham in Bristol Bay. In the spring and summer walrus haul out on the beaches Round Island, and thousands of the 10-foot-long, 2,500-pound animals have been counted in a single day.
The area is a haven for vast flocks of seabirds. Hundreds of Steller sea lions congregate in the sanctuary, and harbor seals, gray whales, orcas, humpback and minke whales forage in the surrounding waters. Red foxes are common on the island, and Hessing said the wildflower displays are spectacular.
Hessing will be featured Friday evening at the Fireside Chat at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, with presentations at 6:30 and 8 p.m. She'll share walrus recordings, stories and slides of the sanctuary's abundant birds and mammals.
Hessing served on the island as a seasonal monitor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, documenting the activity of animals, helping visitors and conducting independent research projects. She now works as an assistant area biologist for Fish and Game in Douglas.
The walrus that cover the Round Island beaches are almost exclusively males.
"Walrus Island: Through a Caretaker's Eyes"
When: 6:30 and 8 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 7. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
"The females stay with the edge of the pack ice up north," she said.
Walrus look pinkish on land, but in the water they turn almost completely white. They have a remarkable circulatory system that helps them to conserve body heat in frigid arctic waters. When they submerge, blood is shunted away from the vessels near their skin to their body core.
A quarter of a million sea birds nest and raise their young on the island in the spring and summer. This includes 150,000 common murres, 70,000 black-legged kittiwakes, pelagic cormorants, parakeet auklets, horned and tufted puffins, pigeon guillemots, and glaucous-winged gulls.
"There are so many birds there, you need to wear a hat," Hessing said.
Over the years, scientists in the sanctuary have studied kittiwakes - gulls that drink only salt water - radio-tagged walrus to study their patterns of migration, monitored the effect of air and boat traffic on marine mammals, and studied the ravens, seabirds and foxes of Round Island.
Permits are available to visit Round Island through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For more information, see the Walrus Islands Web pages under Special Areas on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Web site.
The Fireside Chat program is a weekly winter lecture series sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service.