As I made my way down Madaffari Drive, I assumed the noise was birds. It was only my second year in Exmouth, so it seemed possible that there were species I hadn’t yet come across. Perhaps some peculiar parrot or pelican. As I turned towards the beach, I caught a whiff of fermenting fish and then I saw them: acres of wrinkled cinnamon skin; gelatinous bodies crushed up against one another, rolling and splashing; light bouncing off thousands of yellowing tusks and millions of vibrissae. I didn’t think it strange. Perhaps it was the early hour, but it seemed perfectly reasonable for thousands of walruses to be clogging Town Beach. It was only when a man, from the veranda of an oceanfront villa, shrieked ‘Get out here!’ to his wife that I acknowledged just how extraordinary their presence was.
Soon people were crowding. Most had left their homes in a hurry, still in pyjamas and with uncombed hair. I recognised some faces, predominantly parents of children I taught. Upon seeing me in my wetsuit with surfboard underarm, one father joked, ‘Don’t think you’ll be getting into the water today, Miss Pallis.’ I smiled politely. Though most of the town had gathered, the walruses outnumbered us.
The local police blocked off the beach and announced via loudspeaker that male walruses may attack if they believe their harem is being threatened. This information was identical to the Wikipedia entry for ‘walrus behaviour’ and I have no doubt that the officers consulted it before arriving. Police training can only prepare you for so much.
Over the following fortnight, various media, ranging from international broadcasters to an obscure veterinary journal, flew in. I told a Perth reporter my impressions, though my interview was not televised. Perhaps I was not emotional or good-looking enough. From the discussions I overheard, the consensus seemed to be that the walruses were a cause for celebration. In the parklands surrounding the beach there were barbecues and ball games. We at the school decided that, since it was almost holidays, we would break early. I brought those students whose parents worked to watch the walruses. Wendy Bitto, one of the fourth-grade girls, was reprimanded via megaphone for attempting to take a selfie with a stray walrus pup, but otherwise the kids were well behaved. At one point, someone threw a beach ball that was, to great applause, struck back by the blubbery chest of a playful female.
Footage of ‘Wilhelmina the walrus’ playing with the beach ball did the rounds on television and social media. Hotel owners hoped that this news might attract tourists, but despite a few weekend visitors, their accommodation remained far from full. We were simply too remote and expensive, especially when compared to the low cost of nearby Indonesia.
This is an excerpt from ‘Living with Walruses’ by David Thomas Henry Wright, one of the short stories in the Margaret River short story collection, ‘Pigface and Other Stories’.
David Thomas Henry Wright has been published in Southerly, Seizure and Verity La. He has been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards (Digital Literature), T.A.G. Hungerford Award, Viva La Novella and Overland Short Story Prize. He has a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh and is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University.