After spending a couple of months in Wales, Wally the Walrus has now moved to Cornwall and was most recently spotted near Padstow!
Back at the end of March, a juvenile Atlantic walrus was spotted off the Pembrokeshire coast and has subsequently become a celebrity, being nicknamed ‘Wally’. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) confirmed that this was the same animal sighted earlier in the month on rocks in County Kerry, Ireland, and identified it by white markings on its left flipper and by the length of its tusks. This means the walrus travelled 450km (280miles) in just six days!
The walrus is likely to be from either the east coast of Greenland or Svalbard and it still remains a mystery how the animal has ended up as far south as the British Isles. Although there are some suggestions it floated on an iceberg, this is extremely unlikely. It could be that Wally made a navigational error or was just curious.
It has now been confirmed that Wally is a male walrus, as apparent in the above photo taken by Dr Brett Lewis. Male Atlantic walruses usually roam further afield than females and adolescents are much more likely to go exploring. Despite the size of Wally, it is thought he is not yet full grown. Atlantic walruses weigh on average 900kg (2000lbs), but males can weigh over a tonne and measure 3m long. Their tusks are slightly longer and thicker than a female’s, measuring around a metre long. These tusks are used to help them haul out of the water, make breathing holes in the ice, search for food and for fighting and dominance in males - the strongest males with the largest tusks are typically the most dominant within a social group. Atlantic walruses range from the Canadian Arctic to Greenland, Svalbard and western Russia and the population is estimated at just over 20,000 individuals.
Wally spent a couple of months in Wales, sunbathing in Pembrokeshire, swimming around the coast and on occasions was seen on the Tenby RNLI stations slipway, where he had to be moved by crews when the slipway was required to launch the lifeboat. Local business created a range of memorabilia to mark Wally’s visit and people flooded to see the animal, many trying to get close enough for a selfie– on occasion, dangerously close, and there were reports of this causing distress to Wally.
ORCA’s Head of Science and Conservation said “Walruses are highly sensitive animals - if they are disturbed they can stampede. This individual has travelled a really long way, and we’d hope it will go back to the Arctic at some point and to do that it needs its energy reserves. Besides, it’s a criminal offence to disturb this animal. We’re all used to social distancing now, so it’s important we practice this with Wally. There is nothing better than observing from a safe distance, so you can watch its natural behaviours.”
Wally has now moved to Cornwall and was most recently spotted near Padstow. Cornwall Wildlife Trust have said this sighting was an ‘absolute first’! The sighting of Wally comes after a pair of killer whales were seen in west Cornwall earlier this month. Pictures of this sighting confirmed this pair were John Coe and Aquarius from the West Coast Community; this is the first confirmed sighting of them in English waters and the most southerly point that has ever been recorded of a visit from the UK's only resident pod of killer whales. They have now been seen back in the Hebrides. Killer whales are a natural predator of the walrus, so it does pose the question of ‘was Wally’s presence the reason these two killer whales ventured so far south?’.
Although sightings of walruses around the UK and Ireland are unusual, they are not unheard of. Since 1979, there have been eight confirmed sightings of walruses in Ireland and they have also turned up in Scotland; the most recent recording was in 2018 when a walrus was seen travelling around various islands for several months. This is not the only arctic species that has been seen around the UK, with a beluga whale spotted in the Thames around Gravesend, Kent in 2018 and in 1949 two narwhals were seen in the Thames and Medway. Bowhead whales have also been recorded in seas around the British Isles in recent years.
As lockdown restrictions continue to lift, please remember to be mindful of any wild animal you may see and follow guidelines to minimise any disturbance to them. Do not approach the animal and keep a safe distance, as they are very sensitive. This walrus is likely to be exhausted from swimming such long distances and is probably going to be stressed as it is in an unfamiliar environment.