Three Inuit hunters in the Canadian territory of Nunavut survived a life-or-death ordeal in Arctic waters after a giant walrus they were pursuing capsized their boat. The hunters spent six hours atop the flipped vessel, nearly succumbing to hypothermia and frostbite, before crawling over thin ice to the safety of an ice floe where a search-and-rescue team awaited them.
According to survivor Joey Sarpinak’s recent Facebook post, the hunting party had been pursuing walruses along an ice floe for two weeks straight before the dangerous encounter took place. The trio found one on the evening of March 11 and shot it three times, Sarpinak said. He prepared to harpoon the massive pinniped, as it appeared to be sinking—but the walrus turned the tables.
“Out of nowhere the walrus surfaced right at the back of the boat and started climbing on top of the boat,” Sarpinak later told CBC News. “When wounded, they are known to climb on top of the ice, so I think that’s why the walrus hopped on our boat.”
Sarpinak implored one of his fellow hunters to hit the walrus with a follow-up shot, but the man had run out of bullets. When the animal came down on the boat with its tusks, and the full force of its girth, the hunters were jettisoned into the frigid waters. “I remember climbing on top of the capsized boat,” Sarpinak wrote on Facebook. “I kicked the walrus somewhere in its body. When I got out of the water, I managed to pull [the others] on top of the boat.”
The stranded hunters then faced strong ocean currents, moving ice, and subzero temperatures. Sarpinak was convinced they were going to die. But after six hours, as night fell, it was the cold that ultimately saved them. When the water around them froze to ice, they managed to crawl over it to the thicker floe, where a search-and-rescue team had gathered and was guiding and encouraging them.
Rescue volunteers, who initially received the hunters’ distress call around 2:00 p.m., delivered the men to a community hospital where they were later released with no apparent injuries. They only suffered temporary frostbite, a local official told Nunatsiaq News. Sarpinak posted a video of the final stage of the rescue on his Facebook page.
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Atlantic walruses can reach nearly 10 feet in length and weigh 2,000 pounds or more. In Nunavut, they are legally harvested by local hunters year-round—an tradition stretching back thousands of years. Modern Inuit hunters use snowmobiles, sleds, aluminum boats with outboard motors, rifles, and harpoons to hunt walruses.