Of all the wildlife encounters I’d imagined for this year, a Walrus off the Welsh coast was certainly not one of them. But then again, when has nature ever played by the rules.
Our hapless wanderer’s story begins, allegedly, thanks to a poorly chosen spot for a snooze. Drifting off quickly takes on dual meaning as, unbeknownst to Wally, the ice sheet upon which he has chosen to lay his head breaks away, depositing him off the south coast of Ireland on March 14th. Residents of the Dingle Peninsula in Co Kerry were understandably quite bemused to find this Arctic beast on their doorsteps, and word quickly spread that the island had its first ever Walrus record. Great news for the country and a story that certainly sparked interest over here too. However, a week later and social media was again abuzz, this time with images taken of the same animal relaxing in a secluded Pembrokeshire Bay. Frustratingly the location was being kept a secret (pandemic and all that) but oh how I wished we could have been there to see him for ourselves. Alas it looked like our chances were to be dashed as Wally was seen to depart later that evening, destination unknown.
Another week passed with no further news and finally being released from lockdown we found ourselves at Strumble Head in distinctly sub-par conditions. A ferocious wind was blowing making even standing upright periodically difficult, let alone trying to hand hold my new telephoto lens. Thankfully the resident Stonechats proved quite accommodating, something which could not be said of the numerous Wheatear present which vanished almost as soon as they were spotted.
We were just about to head for home when news came in that, unbelievably, Wally was back in Wales. And no secluded bay this time, oh no. Instead Wally had decided to haul out on the RNLI slipway right in the middle of Tenby, perfect timing for those who like us were just beginning to stretch their wings after months of restrictions. I can’t deny that the drive back east wasn’t a little stressful but as soon as we got that first sighting across the bay we could at last relax. Wally was still there, and he was huge!
I’m not quite sure what I expected but in a country where all our wildlife is of classically understated dimensions, seeing this huge hulk from over a mile away was quite simply mindboggling. I may have remarked on this fact more than once to my partner.
We not-quite jogged our way around to the lifeboat station, passing numerous people doing exactly the same. There was no doubt that was an Event. Choosing a vantage point above the crowds we finally had close views and wow, what an animal.
With the tide rising Wally had hauled himself out just above the waterline, still however in reach of the occasional wave or splash which rather amusingly seemed to annoy him no end. When the threat of a soaking really got too much he reluctantly shuffled further up the ramp before settling down once more.
You only had to look around at fellow observers to see that this was a special encounter for all and I would have loved to have returned ourselves when the weather wasn’t quite so dire. As you can imagine the crowds though were fairly heavy and before we knew it our chance had gone. Wally was on the move again, stopping off in Cornwall mid-May time before reappearing in France. An unfortunate collision there with a boat probably won’t have done the region any favours in whatever passes for the Walrus equivalent of TripAdvisor and it was no surprise to see Wally relocate once more in June, this time to the Isles of Scilly. There a trail of broken and sunken boats threatened to have the bailiffs called in before some enterprising locals built a custom raft, adopted by their new attraction mere hours after launch.
Then a week ago Wally turned up back in Ireland, once again in search of somewhere comfortable to lay his head. Unfortunately this has resulted in more damage to vessels but a plan to provide a similar pontoon to that used in Scilly is already underway.
Quite what the future holds for Wally is an ongoing mystery that I for one am going to be following with avid interest. Will he decide to return home and if so might we one day see him again, perhaps with friends in tow? Could a return to Welsh waters be on the cards, either to Tenby or maybe even Gower? Now that would be a fantastic record for my local patch.