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Arctic interloper stuns Irish wildlife enthusiasts

The discovery of a bearded seal in the small West Cork town of Timoleague late last week left Irish wildlife enthusiasts stunned, and led to widespread speculation about what it was doing so far south of its Arctic range.

Bearded Seal in West Cork, Ireland
Although usually found on Arctic pack ice, this healthy-looking bearded seal seems quite at home on a grassy bank in Ireland’s far south. (Photo: Shearwater Wildlife Tours / Paul Connoughton)

If you watch wildlife regularly you learn to expect the unexpected, and yet nature retains an almost unparalleled capacity to surprise and delight even seasoned wildlife professionals. That’s exactly what happened to West Cork based wildlife enthusiast and proprietor of Shearwater Wildlife Tours, Paul Connoughton, as he drove home through the quiet village of Timoleague in West Cork last Friday evening 04 August.

Paul Connoughton
West Cork based birder and wildlife enthusiast Paul Connoughton

“I was passing the estuary in Timoleague when I spotted what appeared to be a seal hauled up on a bank above the high tide mark,” said Paul. “I was immediately struck by the paleness of the animal. At first glance I knew this was something different!”

A closer look through binoculars and spotting scope confirmed Paul’s suspicions. He was looking at a bearded seal — an Arctic seal species only recorded once before in Ireland.

About Bearded Seals

Adult bearded seals are big animals,  reaching up to 2.6 metres in length and weighing from 200 to 360 kg. It has a circumpolar distribution, and is usually found in Arctic waters of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, where it rarely strays far from the ice. Bearded seals feed on the sea bed, where they make use of their eponymous long whiskers to find small prey in the sediment, including molluscs, crustaceans and bottom dwelling fish. Polar bears and killer whales are major predators of this species across their native range… neither of which pose much of a threat in the estuary at Timoleague.

Find out more about the Bearded Seal on ARKive.

A very rare seal sighting

“The gravity of the find eluded me at first,” said Paul. “I quickly phoned some local friends and one managed to come and see the bearded seal just before it bumbled along into the water and swam away down the estuary causing quite a wave as it traveled through the shallow water.”

Bearded seals are very rare vagrants to the waters around Britain and Ireland. The only other confirmed Irish record is from September 2002, when a weak animal was rescued from Killary Harbour, Co. Mayo, before subsequently being rehabilitated and released back into Arctic waters with the help of the Irish navy in November 2002. There are around 20 records of the species from Britain, mostly from the islands of Orkney and Shetland off the north-east coast of Scotland.

Quite what drove this apparently healthy seal so far south of its natural range is a mystery, but it’s not the only Arctic vagrant to be spotted in Ireland over recent years. In October 2015 a beluga whale was videoed swimming off Dunseverick Head, County Antrim and in May 2016 Ireland’s first ever confirmed sighting of a bowhead whale, a large Arctic whale species, was recorded at Carlingford Lough.

Experts are speculating that an increase in recent sightings of normally exclusively Arctic species off Irish coasts could be an indicator of the impact climate change is having on sensitive polar ecosystems.

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