In 1982, as a senior in high school, I had an opportunity to take part in an internship program at a public aquarium in Connecticut. Part of my responsibilities was the daily feeding of the three species of resident pinnipeds.
Sea lions were about as charming and friendly as they’d be if portrayed in a Disney feature. Fur seals were about as ornery and cuddly as a pack of rabid pit bulls. The harbor seals were a little tougher to pin down as a group since each one had its own distinctive personality ranging from sweet as can be to downright nasty. I’ll never forget one named "Ben" who never forgave me for rescuing some ducklings he was planning on eating. Each day thereafter he would position himself by the exhibit door and try to bite my legs as I fended him off with the fish bucket. This became a daily ritual and he saved all his ire just for me, even when I returned for a visit two years later.
But the star of the seal exhibit that year was a fairly famous harbor seal named Andre. Here’s his story.
Andre was born off the coast of Rockport, Maine in 1961. As a young pup abandoned by his mother, he was rescued by a local tree surgeon named Harry Goodridge. Harry would feed Andre and even taught him some basic commands and tricks. Although he spent much of his younger years in a floating enclosure, the pen was always left open so the seal could come and go as he pleased. This enclosure helped keep Andre safe from boat traffic.
Harbor seals spend the first year of their lives in the care of their mothers, who after weaning will teach them how to hunt food on their own. It seems pretty amazing that Andre taught himself how to hunt after being hand fed baby formula and then fish by his companions. It’s possible that the food supplied by the Goodridges gave him more time to learn this skill on his own than his mother would have offered. In any case, it wasn’t long before Andre was fully self-sufficient, but he still chose to stay close to the people who raised him.
Harbor seals spend summers in the waters off Eastern Canada and the Gulf of Maine, gorging on herring and other coastal finfish. Each winter they migrate to southern New England and Long Island. Andre would leave the Goodridges in the fall and travel to Connecticut. The following spring he would make the 150 mile swim back to Rockport.
In his later years Andre spent winters at an aquarium, either in Boston or Mystic. The year I interned was Mystic’s turn. In a lesson as to why attempting to domesticate wildlife is a very bad idea, his yearly stint in captivity was for his own protection. His habit of approaching people for food and sunbathing on boats and marina docks didn’t go over so well with folks outside of Rockport. Apparently Andre had a knack for sinking small dinghys when he tried to climb up on them.
Each spring local media in Boston or Mystic would gather for the annual release ritual, where Andre would be shipped to the shoreline and coaxed into the water. A few weeks later he would appear at the Goodridges' back door in Maine.
Unlike many species of pinnipeds, which is the group of marine mammals that include walruses, "eared" seals like sea lions, and "earless" seals, harbor seals are not threatened and number roughly half a million strong worldwide. However today, because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Harry would probably be heavily fined for his actions. And although it’s not widely reported, in the late 1950’s Harry had another pet seal named Basil. Basil died in 1960 when he was taken out to sea for excersize and was eaten by a great white shark right in front of his owner. Harry killed the shark. To me this indicates that Andre may well have not been simply "found", but was possibly captured as a replacement pet. But that’s just my take and I certainly have no proof of this.
Harry Goodridge died in 1990 at the age of 74. Four years earlier he lost his beloved seal in a territorial fight with another male seal. Probably a bully like Ben. Andre was found covered in bruises and lacerations typical of an intraspecies scuffle and is buried behind the Goodridges house. Andre was twenty six at the time of his death, which is actually the life expectancy of a male. Females often live for an additional five or ten years. Rockport now has a marble statue of Andre. If you’d like to visit this memorial, you can get to Rockport Maine by following these directions. Below is a photo of the memorial, and here is an actual photo of Andre himself, housed at the Maine Historical Society.
An especially lame movie was made in 1994 about Andre’s life, but because harbor seals are so difficult to work with the producers decided to use a more accommodating California sea lion. As you can see below, sea lions have pinna, or external ears. Harry Goodridge is credited as the writer of that film.
Fun Fact: This young Cape Cod harbor seal recently walked two miles across town to gorge himself on trout in a state fish hatchery lagoon.
Other diaries in this series can be found here.