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Bearded seal: Rare Arctic visitor 'on holiday' in Cork

The bearded seal was photographed in west Cork Image copyright Paul Connaughton
Image caption Chilling out in Cork - the Arctic tourist was photographed by a birdwatcher at the weekend

A bearded seal - a species normally found in icy Arctic waters - has been spotted "on holiday" along the south coast of the Republic of Ireland.

The unusual visitor was photographed relaxing on a river bank in west County Cork at the weekend by birdwatcher and wildlife enthusiast, Paul Connaughton.

Mr Connaughton said he believes it is only the second recorded sighting of a bearded seal on the island of Ireland.

He described it as an "incredible find" and shared his photos on social media.

'Paleness'

In a Facebook post - entitled Arctic seal holidays in west Cork - Mr Connaughton explained how he spotted the seal as he drove home last Friday.

"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," he wrote.

"I was immediately struck by the paleness of the animal. I did a quick u-turn and pulled in to get my binoculars and camera."

Image copyright Paul Connaughton
Image caption The plump seal was spotted relaxing on a river bank before going for a dip

Mr Connaughton has a keen eye for nature: As well as being chairman of the west Cork branch of Birdwatch Ireland, he also runs his own company, Shearwater Wildlife Tours.

Speaking to BBC News NI, he said he was very familiar with other types of seal more commonly found along the Irish coast.

He immediately noticed there was something "quite distinctive" about this animal, which was very far inland along the estuary.

'Vagrants'

His photos were sent to the Irish Whales and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and the Irish Seal Sanctuary to get confirmation of the breed.

Mr Connaughton said the bearded seal appeared very healthy and had no trouble getting into the river and swimming off.

He said there have been "about 20" recorded sightings off the northern coast of Scotland in recent years but he believes it is the first such sighting in Ireland since 2002.

"In all of nature, there are vagrants," he said, adding that the most surprising thing about this Arctic tourist was that it had travelled so far south.

The bearded seal, (Erignathus barbatus), is a non-migratory seal that usually lives in coastal Arctic waters.

'Good and fat'

The IWDG's sightings officer, Padraig Whooley, told BBC News NI that when animals are swept or blown significantly off course from their normal habitat, they often struggle to cope with unfamiliar surroundings, predators and food.

However, he said this seal seemed to be "good and fat" and appeared in rude health, despite being thousands of kilometres from his usual hunting ground.

Image copyright Paul Connaughton
Image caption The seal may have been in the area for more than a week, according to reports

Mr Whooley added that he did not know how or why a bearded seal ended up so far south at the height of summer, but said it was the third Arctic sea creature spotted off the island of Ireland in recent years.

The group tracked a bowhead whale in Carlingford Lough in May 2016 and reported a beluga whale sighting off Dunseverick Head, County Antrim, in October 2015.

Since posting the photos, Mr Connaughton has heard reports from other people who saw a similar seal in the estuary about a week earlier, but who perhaps did not realise the significance of the sight.

Maybe the local food is so good in west Cork that the tourist decided to extend his stay.

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