Rarely seen Arctic visitor spotted in West Cork

A ‘mega rare’ sighting of a seal usually found on Arctic sea ice has stunned wildlife observers after being spotted in Ireland for only the second time on record, writes Linda McGrory.

The bearded seal, distinctive for its pale-coloured pelt and long bushy whiskers, was seen over the weekend as it sat on the banks of the estuary at Timoleague, West Cork.

The “incredible” find was made by Paul Connaughton, chairman of Birdwatch Ireland West Cork branch, who said he could barely believe his eyes.

“I was immediately struck by the paleness of the animal. I did a quick u-turn and pulled in to get my binoculars and camera. At first glance I knew this was something different,” he said.

“With a fine old-fashioned moustache, a short neck and smallish square head compared to the size of the body with an overall solid creamy grey colour with no markings of any sort on the body, I was sure of my incredible find.”

Mr Connaughton, who runs Shearwater Wildlife Tours, quickly called local friends and shared the unique experience on social media before the weighty visitor “bumbled along into the water and swam away”.

He also outlined how the bearded seal, which can weigh up to 250 kilos, is an Arctic and sub-Arctic species usually found in northern Canada, Greenland, the Russian Arctic to the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk.

“It is usually associated with the drifting pack-ice where it breeds from late March to early May. The diet consists of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, octopus and marine algae,” he added.

There have been fewer than 20 recorded visits of the bearded seal in Britain, mainly on the Shetland and Orkney Islands off Scotland. Mr Connaughton said the only other Irish record was of a female taken into care and rehabilitated in Co Galway, 15 years ago.

Friday’s rare discovery prompted online observers to discuss how the healthy-looking mammal ended up such a long way from home, with some wondering if it had anything to do with the melting sea ice. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group joined the discussion pondering: “What is happening up there (Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions), that in recent years we have recorded belugas, bow head whales and now bearded seals?”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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