It was Willie O’Driscoll, a farmer of Kilbrittain, who first saw it — although he didn’t identify it — and first told me about it, the big seal that, over the previous 18 months, he’d regularly noticed relaxing on the shores of Courtmacsherry Bay.

Willie thought it unusual, and suggested I took a look. I went over there a few times but had no luck. Had I seen it, I wouldn’t have immediately known the species, but would have seen immediately that it wasn’t a grey or harbour seal, and have set about research.

Ten days ago, on Friday 4th August, Paul Connaughton of Shearwater Wildlife Tours, Clonakilty, was driving home from work when, just outside Timoleague on the Darraragh road, his sharp eyes glimpsed something large, white and incongruous lying in a field across the top end of the uppermost creek of Courtmacsherry Bay.

He turned and went back and, there, just across the narrow waterway, saw a fully grown, 2.5m long, bearded seal, an Arctic species normally seen relaxing on ice floes, lying at ease on the green grass of an Irish field. He could hardly believe his eyes.

It was about six o’clock in the evening and the tide was full in. He phoned a birder friend, Peter Wolstenhome in Courtmacsherry, to see and confirm his identification.

They viewed it through binoculars and a telescope (with which they could no doubt count the hairs in its beard), and took photos galore until it suddenly noticed or felt their interest and, in some haste, lumbered its 300kg of blubber down to the water, slipped in and headed downstream “at an amazing speed”. It was last seen ploughing under the Timoleague-Courtmacsherry Bridge like a torpedo, its forehead raising a ‘prow wave’ as it headed out into the vast bay. Shortly afterwards, Wolstenhome put the sighting on the Internet, where it ‘went viral’ on media at home and abroad, and appeared on RTÉ TV.

I got the news on Saturday morning via text message and photo from my son Fintan in Canada, a bizarrely roundabout way of receiving news of a major wildlife event just up the road, whence I’ve previously reported such rarities as spoonbills and purple ibis, schools of inshore blue fin tuna and the tragic demise of a 65 foot long fin whale. Courtmacsherry Bay, soon to be put on The Wild Atlantic Way (why only now?), gets more than its share of wildlife phenomenon.

I immediately consulted my books, and then Google, and then rang Paul Connaughton, to hear his story. I mentioned the coincidence of Willie O’Driscoll’s seal, which I hadn’t seen but assumed to be a grey, common on this coast. “Just a minute,” said Paul, “Could it be the seal I saw?” hanging about for some time because of the abundance of shellfish, shrimp and mullet in the bay.

When I informed Willie of the Timoleague bearded seal, he confirmed that his seal also looked unusual, and arranged to email me some excellent photos. It was a seal unquestionably bearded. I forwarded the pictures to Paul, who confirmed 100%, and was amazed to hear that it had stayed in the bay for so long.

There were, apparently, only two previous records of bearded seals in Ireland, one at Killary Harbour and another, a juvenile nurtured by an animal lover, at Letterfrack, Galway, and then released in the far Atlantic by the Irish Navy.

B

earded seals roam Arctic waters, a Pacific population from eastern Canada to the Laptev Sea, north of Siberia, and an Atlantic population from western Canada also to the Laptev Sea. They feed on fish, and on crabs, shrimps and shellfish on the sea bed. Their long, stiff whiskers are, no doubt, evolved for raking the mud.

The males sing underwater songs to attract females, who give birth on the ice, the pups entering the water only hours after birth. Hunted by aboriginal people for millenia, they provide food and durable skin, excellent for clothes, fishing gear and kayak-making.

Nowadays, they are threatened by oil spills that kill them or their prey species, and by noise from oil rigs drowning out the males’ mating calls. However, the greatest threat is global warming melting the pack ice.

Paul Connaughton’s quick recognition of a strange creature in a strange place, Willie O’Driscoll’s conscientious observations and reports, and the fortuitous coincidence of my connecting the two all lead to further evidence of bizarre movements in nature.

Patrick Whooley of The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group tells me of recent records of Arctic whales, bowheads and belugas in our waters. Flocks of Wilson’s storm petrels, birds that breed in the Antarctic, were recently spotted from the Shearwater Wildlife Tours boat off Fastnet Rock.


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