This year there have been many reports of animals that are actually at home in the polar regions turning up in temperate latitudes over the last few months. In particular, the male walrus ‘Wally’ has gained some notoriety after first being spotted on the Irish coast in mid-March. However, Wally is not alone on the loose – a second young walrus, a female, has been spotted in the southern North Sea.
In the southern hemisphere, some strays are also on the move: from New Zealand to the Beagle Channel near Tierra del Fuego, leopard seals have been observed. In the middle of last week, a leopard even reached Easter Island.
Wally, the walrus, made an extensive tour along the Western European coast with stops in Spain, France, Wales, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Pontoons and small boats often served as resting places for him – to the chagrin of some boat owners who found their craft at the bottom of the harbor basin. Now Wally seems to be on his way back to the Arctic: since September 19, the walrus bull, about four years old, has been spotted repeatedly in Höfn in southeastern Iceland.
Early last week, a second, female walrus surfaced on the Dutch coast near Schiermonnikoog. Marine mammal researcher Sophie Brasseur of Wageningen Marine Research at Wageningen University explained that the animal looks healthy and apparently finds food this far south. The researcher would like to study exactly what the walrus feeds on and hopes to get a fecal sample.
Walruses stray to European shores every now and then, but in the Netherlands it was the first time this century. Hans Verdaat, also a researcher at Wageningen Marine Research, suspects that the more frequent sightings are related to the recovery of the walrus population on Spitsbergen after a long period of hunting. According to Brasseur, however, climate change also plays a role, since with the melting of sea ice, the walrus’ habitats are shrinking and they have to come ashore more and more often.
In the southern hemisphere, leopard seals are still making headlines, spending their resting periods mainly on beaches in New Zealand. But also in the Beagle Channel near Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, kayakers had a special kind of encounter on September 22 when suddenly a leopard seal swam all around the boats.
Just a day later, residents of Easter Island, more than 4,500 kilometers away, also reported seeing a leopard seal resting on the beach. According to a post published on Facebook by Sernapesca Rapa Nui, immediately after the sighting, a team consisting of a veterinarian, maritime and naval officials, and volunteers from a dive center was assembled to monitor the protected seal and take it into care if necessary. Although the nutritional condition does not appear to be too good, fortunately this was not necessary – on September 25 the leopard seal was observed hunting in a bay and since then there have been no further reports of sightings.
This is the third time a leopard has been observed on Easter Island – first in 2002 and the second time in 2018.
All these animals have attracted great attention where they appeared and created interest among the local population. In some cases, fences even had to be built to protect the animals from visitors. Scientists and animal and nature conservation organizations therefore tirelessly appeal to keep a minimum distance of 100 meters from the animals so as not to disturb them during their important resting phases.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
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