Each summer large numbers of walruses haul out on the rocky beaches of these islands on Bristol Bay
Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary is located southwest of Dillingham in northern Bristol Bay. The sanctuary is a remote seven-island preserve that includes the largest walrus haul-out grounds in Alaska. Most visitor attention is focused on Round Island, where each summer up to 14,000 male walruses haul out on the rocky beaches between feedings.
First explored by Captain James Cook in 1785, this area earned the name “Walrus Islands” due to the large concentration of walruses that visit these islands every summer; the largest concentration is found on Round Island. Today, this island group is officially designated as Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, and a permit is required to visit Round Island.
These craggy coastal islands are located on the Bering Sea, close to the northern shores of Bristol Bay at the entrance to Togiak Bay. The waters are cold all summer, and windy weather is common, causing blowing rain and rough seas.
The waters of Bristol Bay around the WISGS support a diverse group of marine mammals. Of these, Pacific walrus is the best-known and locally abundant inhabitant within the WISGS. The walrus haulout at Round Island is one of four major terrestrial haulouts in Alaska. Walrus return to these haulouts every spring as the ice pack recedes northward, hauling out at these beach sites for several days between feeding forays. The number of walrus using the island fluctuates significantly from year to year, however, up to 14,000 walrus have been counted on Round Island in a single day.
Other wildlife is also plentiful on this remote island. Several hundred Steller sea lions regularly haul out at East Cape, the eastern tip of the island, and are frequently spotted swimming offshore, as are sea lions. Gray whales feed in small pods offshore in April and May during their annual spring migration. Orcas, humpback and minke whales appear from time to time. Harbor seals are common on all of the islands except Round Island. Red foxes inhabit the island and are regularly spotted by visitors. Fox kits (babies) may be observed in summer.
For birders, close to 250,000 seabirds return to the islands to nest and raise their young each summer. Passerines and raptors are among the summer residents.
Access to the islands from Togiak or Dillingham can be accomplished via commercial or private vessels. A visit to Round Island and its surrounding waters requires a permit, whereas the other islands do not. Activities on Round Island include wildlife viewing, photography, hiking and primitive camping, while the other islands in the sanctuary offer the same plus to fishing.
Portions of Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary require an access permit issued for entry, including Round Island and the 3 mile radius around it. The goal of the access permit program is to provide the public with an opportunity to view and photograph pacific walrus and other wildlife, while minimizing impacts to these species and their habitats. There are no camps or other facilities on the other islands within WISGS, the only facility is at Round Island.
Visitation to these other islands of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary does not require an Access Permit and is open to most public uses provided the activity does not damage refuge resources, disturb wildlife or disrupt existing public uses. Allowed activities generally include fishing, wildlife watching, hiking and camping. Due to their remote nature, the lack of facilities and transportation difficulties visitation to these other islands is low and visitors need to be prepared to be totally self sufficient.
There are limited visitor facilities on Round Island. There is a developed camping area on the island with a toilet and plywood platforms. Visitors need to be totally self-sufficient and bring their own tent, sleeping bag and pad, cooking gear, clothes and food. Visitors should also be in good physical condition as trails are primitive and terrain demanding. Located on a bluff, the camping area overlooks Bristol Bay toward Kulukak Bay, where walruses are often seen swimming. On calm nights you can hear males grunting, bellowing and strumming.
There is a trail system that allows visitors to walk along the north and east sides of the island. Although maintained, these trails are best described as primitive. A trail that extends south of the campground offers relatively flat walking conditions and provides some excellent views of smaller haul-out areas. At times you may be less than 30 feet above resting walruses and right next to puffins, murres and other sea birds. This trail ends at the eastern tip of the island overlooking a Steller sea lion haul out.
Visitors to Round Island are required to have a permit, which costs $50 and is available via online or paper application with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Permits are available only when Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff are on the island, approximately May 1 through August 15 annually, and must be reserved in advance.
Dillingham and Togiak serve as the gateways to Walrus Island State Game Sanctuary, which is accessible only by boat. Dillingham has daily scheduled air service from Anchorage. Commercial operators are available to provide transportation or guided trips to Round Island.
For more information or a current list of commercial operators contact the Alaska Department of Fish & Game office (907-842-2334; www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=refuge.rnd_is) in Dillingham.