A walrus swimming in the sea.

Walruses normally live in and around the Arctic circle, and it is rare that they come this far south. Image © Shutterstock / mergus

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Will walruses become established in UK waters?

A walrus has been spotted taking a rest on the coast of north-eastern England. 

While the young female is one of a few to have been spotted around the British Isles in recent years, the marine mammals are unlikely to make the country their permanent home. 

Over the weekend a female walrus was spotted napping at a harbour in Northumberland, UK. Thought to be the same animal seen over recent weeks in the Netherlands, named Freya, it made an appearance at Seahouses on Sunday but has not been seen since. 

This latest walrus sighting comes after a male walrus, nicknamed Wally, was seen around the coast of the UK and Ireland in March. Repeatedly seen over a period of about five months, Wally moved down the western coast of the UK and Ireland, even reaching as far as northern Spain, before heading back to the Arctic four weeks ago. 

But while this new walrus might give the impression that climate change is pushing these huge pinnipeds further south, scientists have poured cold water on the possibility of walruses becoming a regular sight in British waters. 

Dr Travis Park, a researcher at the Museum, says, 'The British Isles are probably a bit too far south for a population to establish.  

'They can do without ice but it gives them an easier time when it is around. It's not impossible a population could establish, and if all the sea ice melts then who knows what could happen?' 

Anyone seeing Freya or any other walrus is advised to leave them alone, with a spokesperson for the Tynemouth Seal Hospital saying, 'We would urge people to please give the walrus as much space and rest as possible. 

'This animal is out of its normal area and will need to rest to build its strength back up. Please follow safe wildlife distancing for this animal to make sure it stays safe.'

On thin ice

Walruses are an iconic species of marine mammal split into two subspecies, the Atlantic and Pacific walrus. Growing up to 1.5 tonnes in weight, their large size allows them to withstand the cold and thrive in freezing conditions. 

While they are now mostly found in the Arctic Circle and its surrounding waters, they previously lived much further south. One of the oldest walrus fossils was found during dredging of San Francisco's harbour and dates back to around 27,500 years ago when the last Ice Age was at its height.  

As these ice sheets retreated north, walruses followed them. The mammals are reliant on ice to serve a range of their needs, including resting, breeding and travelling. 

Over time, the more southerly populations have been wiped out as a result of human hunting, with remaining populations generally found in the more inaccessible regions of the far north. While they are now protected in much of their range, sea ice loss and oil exploration continue to threaten their population. 

This loss of habitat has forced walruses to travel further to find food and a place to rest. Populations now frequently rest on land, and are forced to swim up to 160 kilometres (100 miles) to look for food.  

The increased effort this requires makes the walruses more vulnerable to exhaustion, starvation, and being crushed to death as the mammals crowd together on land. 

'If we keep losing sea ice we will probably see a reduction in their population,' Travis says, 'but it probably wouldn't drive them to extinction. Shipping traffic and acidification pose a greater threat.  

'Vessel strikes are a hazard, while shipping pollution and ocean acidification put their prey, such as bivalves and clams, at risk.' 

As ice becomes even more scarce, walruses may be forced further south in the hunt for a place to live and food to eat. 

Look but don't touch 

Walruses are occasionally seen around the UK and Ireland, with 27 sightings in the former and 11 in the latter during the past 130 years. 

Recently, Wally caused chaos around Ireland after climbing aboard boats in harbours and causing them to sink. He later crossed the Irish Sea to Wales before heading to Cornwall, France and most recently Iceland. 

Freya was identified by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDLMR) charity, which works to save marine mammals in distress. She is believed to have swum over from the Netherlands after previously having been sunbathing on a Walrus-class submarine in the country. 

While there is some damage to her flippers, BDLMR said that it was 'superficial' and was currently nothing to be concerned about. Echoing the Tynemouth Seal Hospital, they called for members of the public to keep back from the walrus. 

'BDMLR, along with Seahouses Harbourmaster and the RSPCA, will work to ensure the animal is allowed to rest safely,' they said in a statement. 'We would ask visitors to respectfully watch the animal from a distance of 100 metres or more and to keep dogs under control on a lead when nearby to help ensure she is allowed to rest peacefully.   

'There is no need for anyone to have to get up close to her as she is a healthy animal who simply needs to be left to take care of herself and build her energy reserves to be able to continue on her journey.'