When Willie O’Driscoll first noticed it “about four years ago”, he little realised that it was a bearded seal and that he was the first human to see a member of this Arctic species so far — 5,700km — south of its usual habitat.
Michael and William O’Driscoll have seen it regularly over the past week.
The local seals are grey. Willie noticed that this seal was different, thick-furred and white — no doubt to camoulflage it from polar bears and killer whales when it rested on ice floes in its normal haunts, the freezing waters from northern Canada to the Laptev Sea, north of Siberia.
The species feeds on fish, as well as crabs, shrimps, and shellfish on the sea bed. Their long, stiff whiskers have, no doubt, evolved for raking the mud, and given them the name “bearded”.
This arrival in Coutmacsherry Bay in spring and summer for the past four years is as phenomenal as an African elephant in an Irish pasture. It’s as far from home as the elephant would be. In 2014, when it was first seen, Willie just thought it was “different”.
It was a wildlife expert, Paul Connaughton of Shearwater Wildlife Tours, Clonakilty, who, chancing to see it on a creek near Timoleague, identified it.
It was ascribed to a one-off event, a seal that had lost its way. It stayed around for four months and disappeared at the end of summer.
It was assumed, probably correctly, that it swam back to the Arctic seas for the winter. Wherever it wintered, however, it returned, in fine fettle, to Courtmacsherry Bay last week.