People should watch from a distance but not approach an Arctic walrus that has arrived off West Cork in the past few days, a zoologist has said.
Prof Emer Rogan of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science at University College Cork (UCC) said the animal, nicknamed Wally, appeared not yet to be fully grown. While walruses are not inherently dangerous, this specimen was still a large animal which could hurt someone if they went too close, she said.
“Males tend to be much bigger but it’s difficult to say whether this animal is a male or a female – what’s clear is that its tusks are still relatively short suggesting that it is not fully grown but it still looks a large animal and people need respect it and give it the space it needs.”
Prof Rogan said walruses belong to the seal family but, unlike seals, they do not eat fish and feed instead on the benthos – organisms living in the mud of the shoreline and their preference is for shellfish such as mussels. They have very powerful jaws and can suck the mussel from the shell.
“They are really very big animals, growing to over three metres so they have to feed a lot and that’s why there was some recent evidence that walruses can feed on dead seals and suck their blubber while they have also been seen to take narwhals when narwhals get trapped in ice.”
Walruses live in large groups of up to several hundred and are highly gregarious, hauling out on rocks on islands or ice to rest with animals often sleeping or resting 18 or 20 hours a day, thus explaining why this animal has taken to resting on rocks or in boats off the Irish coast.
Prof Rogan said the walrus had first been spotted resting on a rock on Valentia Island in Co Kerry in March and was later spotted in Wales before resurfacing when it hauled itself into a boat off Ardmore in Co Waterford last week. Most recently, it appeared in West Cork.
“They are fascinating animals including possessing a really extraordinary vocal repertoire underwater, they can make all sorts of noises including sounds like door bells ringing – they are not deep divers so that is why they are found mostly in the coastal areas,” said Prof Rogan.
“It’s hard to know what that animal is doing here. It’s well out of its range and it’s also by itself which is a bit unusual. There’s a lot happening in the oceans and we do see some Arctic species down where so whether that the result of changes in the Arctic environment, it’s hard to know.
“Obviously in the Arctic they are hunted so I don’t know how much fear or otherwise this animal would have of humans but they are just very big animals and with its weight, just respect it and give it space and keep a distance away from it because it can move quite quickly on rocks or beaches.”
The most recent series of sightings of the walrus began on Sunday when it was spotted in Courtmacsherry in West Cork and then it emerged a five-metre boat was missing from its mooring in Dunnycove on the western side of Clonakilty Bay, only for locals to find it had it sunk at the mooring.
Locals believe the walrus hauled itself into the boat to rest and in the process sunk it. The walrus later damaged a Rib (rigid inflatable body) boat when hauling himself or herself aboard, which almost caused the vessel to sink before the animal damaged another two boats that were also moored in Dunnycove.
Local boat owners began taking their boats from the water but the animal continued to remain in the area, attracting huge crowds, with hundreds of people thronging the narrow laneways around Ardfield on the western side of Clonakilty Bay.
Tim Feen, officer in charge of Castlefreke unit of the Irish Coast Guard, urged people to be careful and appealed to them to park responsibly and not just abandon their cars, so that in the event of any incident where somebody might fall and injure themselves the emergency services can reach them.
"People are naturally curious because I think there's only been a handful of sightings walrus in Ireland prior to this but this guy is proving a bit of rock star with all the sightings of him but people need to be responsible when parking here if they come down to see to try and see him," he said.