The discovery of a bearded seal at Timoleague recently, prompts renewed interest in early records, writes Richard Collins

In 1855, a man named Evans shot a seal near Roundstone, Co Galway. The resident grey and harbour species were persecuted back then but the animal Evens killed, it seems, was a harp seal. The victim sank when hit, so its identity couldn’t be confirmed. However, UCC zoology professor, Fergus O’Rourke, in his Fauna of Ireland, wrote that ‘Mr Evans accurate description makes it highly probable that this was the species involved’.

The harp was not the only Arctic seal to visit Ireland in the 19th Century; hooded seals also turned up. A description of one seen in Galway Bay in 1898 is so accurate, according to O’Rourke, that ‘there can be no doubt in accepting the record’. The discovery of a bearded seal at Timoleague recently, prompts renewed interest in these early records.

An emaciated bearded seal was captured in Killary Harbour in November 2002, the first known occurrence of the species here. The patient was nursed back to health and released into sub-Arctic waters with the assistance of the Naval Service. The incident brought to five the number of seal species known to frequent Irish waters, at least occasionally. Only two of the seven European seal species have yet to turn up here. The ringed seal of the Arctic ice-shelf, the polar bear’s main prey-item, is seen occasionally in Scotland, so it may also visit our shores. The Mediterranean monk seal, a warm water dweller, is the world’s rarest: only 700 individuals remain. Despite rising ocean temperatures, this endangered species is unlikely to venture as far north as Ireland.

Should we include the walrus on our list? One visited the Shannon Estuary in 1897. There were no further sightings up to 1980 but up to twenty have been reported since then. In April 1999, a walrus came ashore at Clew Bay and, in October 2004, surfers watched a ‘tan-coloured cow-sized animal’ exit the sea there. Carcasses washed ashore have removed any lingering doubts that these Arctic-dwellers visit our shores. ‘Walrus’, meaning ‘whale-horse’, may come from Dutch. Like the Flying Dutchman, condemned to roam the seas for all eternity, a vagrant lost soul turning up here has wandered far from home.

Seals and walruses belong to the ‘pinniped’ (‘flipper-feet’) family which also includes the sea lions, those well-known circus performers of zoos and aquaria. Pinnipeds evolved from bear-like land-based meat-eaters some 50 million years ago. Around 30 million years later, their lineage split in two. One branch led to the seals, the other became the walruses and sea lions.

Although their ancestors evolved in the North Pacific, walruses became extinct there. Some had moved to the Atlantic and they managed to survive. Those living in the Pacific today are descendents of ‘blow-ins’ from this exiled branch of the family, who had returned to the Pacific around half a million years ago.

The walrus, therefore, is more closely related to sea lions than to seals. It has the flexible sea lion ‘arms’ and, on land, adopts the familiar upright sea lion posture, rather than the clumsy belly-flop prostrate one of seals. The formidable tusks are oversized upper canine teeth. Pointing downwards and curved backwards, they are useless as weapons. Driven into ice or hooked over ledges, theses sea-mammal equivalents of the mountaineer’s ice-picks enable walruses to climb out of the water. The males with the biggest tusks get the lion’s share of the females.

All of the other pinnipeds of the North Atlantic being ‘true’ seals, the walrus is the odd one out. Classified as ‘threatened’ by the IUCN, the species alive today is the only member of the ancient walrus tribe to survive. Although only a rare vagrant here, it has a unique, and special, place on the list of Irish sea-mammals.


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