On March 20, the RSPCA in Wales responded to an unusual call. For the first time in its 200 year history, they were asked to check up on an Atlantic walrus that had stopped on the coast of Pembrokeshire to rest, Bruce Sinclair reports for the Western Telegraph.
Walruses aren’t native to the British Isles, so this brief visitor quickly became a local celebrity, with residents suggesting names like Wally, Isabelle and Cain. Photographs of the walrus suggest that the same animal swam to southern Wales from Ireland in about six days, and experts wonder if it’s also the same walrus that was spotted in Denmark in mid-February.
The RSPCA and the Welsh Marine Life Rescue kept track of the walrus for its short stay in Pembrokeshire to check its health and make sure that nobody disturbed it. By March 22, the walrus had returned to sea, per Rachael O’Connor at the Irish Post.
This wasn’t the first-ever walrus to visit Ireland and Wales, but it’s a rare event.
“Since 1979 there have been eight confirmed sightings of walruses in Ireland,” and a few in Scotland, says Lucy Babey, who leads science and conservation at ORCA, to Nicola Davis at the Guardian. “There was one in 2018 that was seen up there on the various islands, travelling around for several months.”
Most Atlantic walruses live in Canada and Greenland, and Babey tells the Guardian the walrus in Wales likely came from either Greenland or the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard. Initially, marine biologist Kevin Flannery suggested the walrus may have fallen asleep on a floating patch of ice that drifted far from the walrus’ home, per the Irish Post. But the walrus might have also been following food sources that led it south.
The walrus is a juvenile, about the size of a cow, and has tusks under four inches long. All walruses have tusks, so biologists observing the walrus couldn’t tell whether it is a male or a female. Despite being far from home, the wayward walrus isn’t in bad shape.
“He was resting and, although appearing slightly underweight, thankfully he wasn’t displaying any signs of sickness or injury,” said RSPCA animal rescue officer Ellie West, who monitored the walrus, per the Western Telegraph. “This is an incredibly rare sighting, and these big, beautiful animals never usually venture so far south.”
The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group shared a post on Facebook that compare photographs of the walrus spotted in Kerry's Valentia Island in Ireland to photographs taken in Wales. White spots on the walrus’ flippers match in both photos, so the organization suspects it’s the same animal.
For the walrus to travel from Kerry's Valentia Island to Pembrokeshire in time for both photo opps, it would have had to swim about 250 miles in just six days. With an average swimming speed of about four miles per hour, and a thick layer of insulating blubber, a walrus is more than prepared for that task.
Walruses can only rest when they reach land. The animals haul themselves out of the water onto shore or sea ice, which is rapidly disappearing due to climate change, in order to recuperate. The walrus in Wales took about two days to relax, and then returned to sea on March 22. The RSPCA has asked the public to call its emergency hotline if the walrus makes another appearance, per the Western Telegraph.
“Do not approach the animal. Keep a really safe distance. They are very, very sensitive,” says Babey to the Guardian. “This animal is going to be pretty exhausted from all of its swimming. It is probably going to be stressed out as it is not in an environment it is used to.”