A Government junior minster has urged the public to “cop on” and leave Wally the Walrus in peace.
Green Party Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan has echoed calls from animal welfare experts for members of the public to keep a safe distance and not disturb or distress the Arctic walrus that has recently resurfaced in West Cork, so the animal can regain its strength to make its way home to its normal northern habitats.
On Thursday Mr Noonan said: “While it’s understandable that many people are excited about the presence of a walrus on the Irish coast, we must remember that this is a wild animal and it should be respected.
“I’m appealing to everyone not to get close and only view it from a distance.
“This is for the animal’s sake, but also for your own, as there may be risks from a water safety perspective where large numbers of people are congregating on the water.”
“Walruses are not a protected species . . . it’s basically the same as a fox or rabbit under the law, so it’s up to people to cop on and have consideration for this poor wild animal, which is a long way from home,” he added.
“Leave it alone and if you must go and see it, use binoculars.”
Seal Rescue Ireland has urged people, whether in boats, kayaks or swimming, to avoid approaching within 100m of the 800kg male – nicknamed Wally – after he surfaced in Crookhaven Harbour near the tip of the Mizen Peninsula in west Cork yesterday.
"Please avoid approaching him within 100m.This is a sensitive species that is easily disturbed and he must be able to rest for his long journey back to Arctic waters," said Seal Rescue Ireland in a Facebook post after pictures appeared of Wally in Crookhaven on social media.
The animal, whom UCC Prof of Zoology Emer Rogan believes is not fully grown because of the size of its tusks, hauled itself onto a ski boat in Crookhaven with photos showing the animal perched behind the wheel.
“Observers have noted he has been quite stressed and agitated from the repeated disturbances caused by boats, kayaks and paddleboards, and has a potential injury from being forced off and on the boat repeatedly,” said Seal Rescue Ireland.
“A designated Rib has been set out since which will hopefully lure him away from other boats to reduce property damage, and we are working with the local community to monitor him there until he has rested enough to continue on his long journey.”
Walruses, like other pinnipeds such as true seals, sea lions and fur seals, need to haul out or temporarily leave the water, usually between periods of foraging activity when they search for shellfish and they usually climb on to ice floes or rocks to rest.
However Wally, who was first spotted on Valentia Island in March, has taken to hauling out on to boats and Ribs including one last month in Ardmore in Co Waterford and earlier this month at Dunnycove in Clonakilty Bay in West Cork where he sank one boat and damaged others.
Seal Rescue Ireland has also urged members of the public to resist the urge to share Wally’s exact location publicly until there is a system in place for him to be monitored throughout the day, with a safe, designated haul-out site for him to rest on undisturbed.
Last week, Orca Ireland executive director Emer Keaveny, who is working with Seal Rescue Ireland to protect Wally, told PJ Coogan on The Opinion Line on Cork's 96FM that Wally had been spotted in Wales, Cornwall, the Scilly Isles, Brittany and as far south as Santander in Spain since showing up in Valentia.
"It is interesting that he has gone on such a long journey – he's been to Wales, he 's been to Cornwall and he's been to the south of France and he was in Waterford and his journey started in Valentia last March so he's been on quite a journey which is a cause for concern," she said.
Ms Keaveny said it wasn't clear what precisely had prompted Wally to venture so far from Arctic waters, though observers are seeing more Arctic species entering Irish waters in recent years and she suspected he came south to forage for food.
“Essentially he eats clams and he’s quite different to the pinnipeds we have here such as grey seals and harbour seals who eat a lot of herring, a lot of sprat – this walrus eats clams and shell fish – he must be getting some food here whether he’s feeding on scallops or mussels, we don’t know.”
Ms Keaveny appealed to the public for donations so Orca Ireland, working in tandem with Seal Rescue Ireland, can provide a temporary pontoon where Wally can haul out on and rest as he prepares for his likely journey up the west coast of Ireland to hopefully head home to Arctic waters.
"We would hope he would head home towards the Arctic but he needs to haul out and recover and get his energy restored so we are hoping to provide a pontoon for him to do that – he was happy to haul out on a very similar structure in the Isles of Scilly and we want to create something similar for him.
“So if you do have a pontoon unit that you don’t need or a Rib that you don’t want that you can give to us or even the lend of it for a few days, please do get in touch with us, plus we are also appealing to members of the public if they see Wally to report their observations to our observers app.”
Additional reporting: PA