Hank Schimschat and his crew are miners who work off the coast of Alaska. Usually, they dredge the Bering Sea looking for gold. However, in the summer of 2017, the seamen discovered something even more precious than the valuable yellow metal.
The Au Grabber is an 80-foot long dredge boat based out of Nome in Alaska. The vessel was bought for $600,000 by miner Hank Schimschat, who has decades of experience in the excavating business. However, in order to get a return on his investment, Schimschat was willing to go the extra mile to get his hands on some gold.
The captain and the exploits of the Au Grabber are the subjects of the Discovery Channel series Bering Sea Gold. The show follows a number of dredgers in their quest for gold and highlights the everyday trials and tribulations of the vessels’ crews. The series has proved popular among viewers, but in 2017 the Au Grabber experienced one of its most interesting plot twists to date. And it all happened off-screen.
That summer, Schimschat and his crew had been searching for gold in the sea off Nome when they made an even more precious discovery. Because, as mighty waves rocked the Au Grabber, a sea creature from the deep accidentally found its way on board.
The animal in question was a baby walrus. And without a mother around, the young male immediately latched on to the ship’s crew. In 2017, Schimschat explained to KTUU, “He took right to us. He was just like a little puppy dog following us around. We didn’t try to pet him or feed him too much.”
The miners decided to leave the walrus on deck overnight, perhaps reckoning he would find his own way back into the ocean. However, when the crew returned the following morning, they found the calf still waiting for them.
As a result, the Au Grabber crew contacted the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) hotline to explain the walrus’ predicament. It was then that a rescue mission was launched, with Gay Sheffield, a marine mammal stranding responder, at the helm. She arranged for the walrus to be transported to Anchorage where an ASLC vet could check it over.
Sea life experts reckoned the little walrus was just two weeks old. Sheffield later revealed that the calf was “emaciated, dehydrated and had several skin sores.” Consequently, the animal required some medical attention and regular feedings to rebuild its strength.
Walrus calves usually stay with their mothers until they are about two years of age. It’s not known how the baby became separated from his parent. But Sheffield suggested a killer whale may have preyed on the calf’s mom or the mom could even have abandoned her child.
However, now that it had experienced human contact, the walrus would be unable to return to the ocean. Sheffield explained that because walruses are sociable animals, “the calf will want to bond with people.” Furthermore, given the young age at which the calf was found, he would be unable to fend for himself in the wild.
So rather than returning him to the sea, it was decided that the calf should be placed in quarantine at the ASLC. There he was given a large tank which ASLC president Tara Riemer described as a “very large playpen.” She added, “He’s a pretty big guy, and it gives him some space to move around and be safe in the space.”
While the calf recuperated, his carers got to work on finding him a more suitable permanent home. He would be unable to stay at the ASLC as it wasn’t equipped to look after an adult walrus. “[There are] only a handful of institutions in the U.S. that can house walruses,” Riemer explained.
As ASLC staff embarked on the search for a home for the walrus they decided that he needed a name. The team invited the public to suggest monikers, and in the end the calf was christened Aku – the native Alaskan word for the stern of a boat.
In October 2017 came word that Aku finally had a new home to go to. A social media post from the ASLC at the time teased, “Due to changing needs of our Wildlife Response patients, Aku will be moved out of his current location soon.”
It turned out that Aku’s new forever home was actually SeaWorld Orlando in Florida. There, the walrus would be placed with another calf called Ginger. Staff hoped that the pair would grow up together and form their own miniature herd in the theme park’s Wild Arctic display.
In 2017 SeaWorld Orlando shared a video on YouTube that celebrated Aku’s arrival. In the footage, Brant Gabriel from the park’s Zoological Operations department revealed, “Back in June when Ginger was born we heard through the grapevine that SeaLife Center had rescued an orphaned walrus. We started wondering at that time if we would be a great location for him to come down here and be with Ginger.”
“We were very excited about Ginger and Aku being able to spend time together and grow up here at SeaWorld Orlando,” Gabriel continued. “We are extremely excited to welcome Aku into the SeaWorld family, and give him a forever home.”
Luckily for all involved, Aku and Ginger soon hit things off. Before long they were exploring their new enclosure together. As their bond grew, their relationship no doubt delighted SeaWorld’s many visitors, who could view the calves from ground level as well as underwater.
In April 2018, a few months after Aku’s arrival at SeaWorld, it was announced that he and Ginger would be meeting park visitors. This would bring people closer to walruses than perhaps ever before, enabling them to appreciate the marine mammals from a new perspective.
Meanwhile, judging by SeaWorld Orlando’s Facebook posts, Aku seems to have settled into the park well. And together with Ginger, he’s an excellent ambassador for marine wildlife. In August 2018, the walrus celebrated his birthday at SeaWorld. Hopefully, it will be the first of many happy occasions at his new home.