The wayfaring walrus Wally, who has spent the past few months in Ireland and Wales (and France most recently where he had a minor run-in with a boat), makes regular-enough headlines these days that he probably warrants his own full-time beat. In late April, he’d taken to lounging on the lifeboat slipway in Tenby, Wales, making things tricky for the crew members who were trying to launch their crafts for training exercises. 


Along the way the pinniped has earned himself plenty of admirers. “Wally’s such an amazing creature and he’s a great attraction, we think he’s like our own lifeboat station mascot,” the South Wales Argus quoted Tenby Royal National Lifeboat Institution press officer Ben James last month.

The far-away-from-home walrus first fired up headlines on March 14, when he hauled out on Valentia Island in County Kerry, Ireland. Speaking to Irish Central, Alan Houilihan, whose five-year-old daughter, Muireann, first spotted the beast, said, “I thought it was a seal at first, and then we saw the tusks. He kind of jumped up on the rocks. He was massive. He was about the size of a bull or cow, pretty similar in size; he’s big, big.”

The walrus then covered some 402 kilometres (250 miles) to reach the Pembrokeshire shores of Wales before heading on to Padstow off the English coast, and finally venturing south to Les Sables-d'Olonne in France:


Where did Wally come from? Likely either Greenland or the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. But whether he drifted down on an iceberg or swam isn’t clear. He may have been the walrus spotted in mid-February in Denmark. (It’s worth noting that not all that long ago an enterprising or ice-riding walrus wouldn’t have had to journey quite so far to reach Ireland: Walruses inhabited Iceland up until about 1,100 years ago, when Norse settlers wiped them out for their ivory.)

He’s not the first walrus to cruise the British Isles. A few others have showed up in Irish waters before. And in 2018, a walrus who also ended up earning the super-popular moniker of “Wally” took a sightseeing tour of northern Scotland – perhaps an unscheduled one, given some surmised the pinniped arrived amid the tumult of the “Beast From the East” anticyclone that afflicted the British Isles with unusually fierce winter weather. That Scottish Wally (Wally I, maybe?) first appeared in the Orkney Islands, then cruised the coast off Sutherland – the first walrus to appear along the Scottish mainland since 1954, according to The Press & Journal. After swimming as far south as Harris in the Outer Hebrides, the walrus doubled back; it was later seen well north in the Shetland Islands, maybe homeward bound for the Arctic.

Biological vagrants

The two Wallys and the other walruses that very periodically haul out along the margins of the British Isles are examples of biological “vagrants”: that is, animals that appear well beyond their normal geographic range. (These are distinguished, of course, from exotic creatures escaped or released from captivity.)

Often vagrants show up in settings unlikely to provide high-quality long-term habitat, as in the case of off-track walruses in Ireland or Wales. Such creatures may be doomed unless they manage to journey back to more appropriate stomping grounds – frequently a tall order for an animal that may already have burned through energy reserves reaching its exotic haunts, and unable to procure adequate food there to fuel up. But in other cases, vagrants that survive may serve as frontline scouts in helping a species colonise new territory.


Unsurprisingly, given the whole flight deal, birds often become vagrants: blown off-course by storms, or perhaps in some cases exhibiting some navigational short-circuiting, as when migrating birds overshoot breeding or wintering grounds or engage in topsy-turvy “reverse migration.” Barn swallows have fluttered to Antarctica; a Magellanic penguin waddled ashore in El Salvador. The only golden eagle ever recorded in Hawaii soared the island of Kauai for some 17 (possibly very lonely) years. Last year, a bearded vulture wowed birders in England’s Peak District, where she earned the name “Vigo.” A DNA analysis of some of its dropped feathers showed the huge raptor – only the second officially documented bird of her kind in England – had hatched the year before in the French Alps.

Ocean giants

But marine mammals such as Wally are also strong candidates for vagrancy. Besides walruses, the British Isles sometimes get buzzed by other Arctic wanderers. There are a handful of records here of both narwhals and beluga whales, for example, including a “white whale,” possibly steered drastically southward by storms, that showed up in the Thames estuary in 2018.

Errant belugas have swum well south in other corners of the world, from New Jersey to Japanese waters. None documented have forayed so far equator-ward as the white whale seen last year off the coast of San Diego in Southern California:

Polar bears

Another snow-white Arctic beast sometimes drifts southward into unusual digs. Polar bears periodically come ashore in Iceland, where they’re considered vagrants hailing from eastern Greenland. Since 2008, Iceland’s policy is to kill such vagrant bears, which aren’t expected to be able to survive on the island and which are furthermore considered a threat to humans and domestic animals. As the Icelandic Institute of Natural History notes, “ ... it is clear that polar bears will never thrive in Iceland in the long term due to the lack of sea ice here and the limited food supply. Conditions in Iceland are furthermore such that females would be unable to give birth and raise offspring here.”

In 2019, a man checking his trapline near Arctic Village in northern Alaska killed a polar bear in self-defence. The bear was more than 161 kilometres (100 miles) south of typical polar-bear country along Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coast. Other Alaskan polar bears have forayed even farther south and inland, including one spotted scavenging lynx carcasses outside a cabin near Fort Yukon in the state’s interior bush, better than 402 kilometres (250 miles) from the sea.

Speaking to Alaska Public Media about the Arctic Village bear, which turned out to be a young female, Eric Regehr of the University of Washington noted these wanderers are often on the younger side. “It seems to particularly happen with young bears,” he said. “And it’s not clear if they’re dispersing, looking for new habitat. It’s not clear if they got, you know, mixed up, if they’re just inexperienced and they went the wrong way.”

Regehr, who’s done much research on the impacts of climate change on polar bears, notes that, beyond the wanderings of dispersing young animals, some of these sightings may also suggest bears driven to footlooseness because of diminished sea ice. (He doubted, though, that that was the root cause for the bear’s arrival in Arctic Village, which took place in midwinter.)

Indeed, a skeletal polar bear seen in 2019 roaming the midsized city of Norilsk, Russia – roughly 482 kilometres (300 miles) from normal haunts on the Kara Sea coast – was taken by many to be a symptom of climate change. “It is not normal for them to walk so far south,” Dmitry Gorshkov of World Wildlife Fund-Russia told The New York Times, “but the unusual situation can happen because of the lack of natural food and ice.”

In 2017, a 10-month-old female polar bear somehow got herself 700 kilometres (435 miles) south of the Arctic coast at a fishing plant on the Kolyma River. And just this month, a polar bear that drifted some 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) south of Siberia’s Arctic coast deep into the Yakutian interior was trapped around the village of Dzhebariki-Khaya after pilfering dog food and threatening locals:

The vagrant polar bear was captured by wildlife officials who plan to return it to more familiar haunts along the Laptev Sea or, failing that, send it to a zoo.

This animal, thought to be a female about two years old, had been spotted a few times on its southward journey, including by a nighttime motorist in March who caught the misplaced ice bear running in blurry headlight footage:

“The polar bear was moving south fast along the rivers, bypassing remote settlements, which is why wildlife experts took so long tracing it,” The Siberian Times wrote about the captured she-bear, which the paper reported could be released back in normal haunts along the Laptev Sea or, failing that, sent to a zoo.


In Canada, muskoxen – most typically tundra denizens – periodically mosey south of the Arctic timberline, turning heads in the taiga. In 2012, a muskox strode out of the woods at the Andrew Lake Lodge in far northern Alberta, surprising onlookers and sending resident dogs into a tizzy. A woman driving the Dempster Highway south of Yukon’s Tombstone Territorial Park in 2015 initially thought she’d seen a grizzly bear strolling along the forest fringe, only to realise the humpbacked beast was a muskox.

“Periodically they do show up in odd places,” Todd Powell of Environment Yukon told the CBC of that roadside muskox. “It’s pretty far south for a muskox, but bull muskox like to take walkabouts like any other bulls.”

And in 2019, an especially southerly muskox – a youngish bull – was shot outside Fort Chipewyan, Alberta near the southwestern edge of Lake Athabasca.


In the Southern Hemisphere, meanwhile, animals more associated with the Antarctic sometimes make cameos far to the north. Leopard seals are a case in point, including the ones that occasionally make landfall on South African beaches, many of them young animals in poor condition. These toothy pinnipeds have appeared as far north in Australia as Fraser Island, and even paid visits to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. But some northerly leopard seals don’t appear to be true vagrants: Tasmanian waters seem to be a regular foraging zone for young seals, and meanwhile the year-round presence of leopard seals in New Zealand and southern South America suggests they’re actually resident there (pups have been seen in Chile).

A pinniped doesn’t have to be a true vagrant to seem entirely out of place – not if you have a run-in with one in completely atypical habitat. A case in point took place in February 2020, when a driver encountered a Steller sea lion on a backroad in the heavily timbered hills of southwestern Washington in the U.S.

The sea lion – an apparently healthy female estimated at 272 to 318 kilograms (600 to 700 pounds) – was, as the raven flies, not far from many of her comrades tracking spawning smelt upstream in the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers, but she was several miles from those drainages in inland forest. Authorities suspected she’d followed feeder creeks out of the Cowlitz and then eventually galumphed her way overland, perhaps disoriented.

Trapping the great sea-beast – which seemed the only real choice after it became apparent she wasn’t going to find her way back to the big rivers anytime soon – turned out to be easier said than done. “She was very aggressive,” Scott Schroeder of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told The Oregonian. “If you got within 20 feet of her, she would go after you.” (He described her lunging “like an alligator.”)

Ultimately the turned-around sea lion was successfully captured and released into the Columbia River, likely glad to be back among the tidal currents (and the smelt).

An infographic showing a selection of vagrant animals and the possible journeys they took to wind up a long way from home. Click to enlarge.

Some vagrants are tragic: emaciated beasts on dead-end journeys taking them irretrievably far away from the environments that could sustain them. Others cast up on distant shores, refresh themselves on extended layovers, then vanish as mysteriously as they arrived – perhaps capable of winging, swimming, or padding their way back to more customary climes. A few may end up vanguards of a range expansion of their kind, in some cases maybe even the leading edge of a geographic shift compelled by climate change.

But no matter what, far-traveling creatures –  the upriver humpback in Montreal, the Subantarctic fur seal in the Kenyan fishing net, the flamingo coming to ground in Siberia, Wally (of course) – captivate us. And maybe, now and then, inspire some itchy feet in our own wanderlusting selves...

Header image: Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service