Andre the Seal | 25 Years with Andre
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Andre the seal — a world-renowned celebrity — may have been one of the longest-running, free, unadvertised attractions that Maine has ever had. For more than twenty-five years, he was also a big part of Harry Goodridge’s life. As a result, Harry formed quite a few opinions about—among other thing—biologists, reporters, local traffic problems, fan mail, “the Feds,” animal trainers, and of course, seals.
One day late last July, Harry Goodridge put on his galoshes and slicker against the drizzly weather and walked down across his Rockport, Maine, lawn to show a visitor where he had buried Andre, the world-renowned seal, very possibly one of the longest-running, free, unadvertised attractions that Maine has ever had, unless you count the lighthouses and the rock-lined coast and the sunrises. On the other side of his garden, ripe with red cabbage and rows of beets and corn, was a small patch of earth, clumps of sod off to the side. Two dusk-red asters had been laid flat on the fresh-turned dirt. Within sight was the harbor, what some think of as Andre’s harbor.
“Andre’s pen is still in the water.” Harry said. “I guess people are still going down, thinking Andre is still there, or at least they go down to look. I keep right away from it. I don’t want to get into any conversations.”
Andre had been missing from Rockport Harbor since June, when he got into a fight with another seal. All month Harry had been out checking tips from people up and down the coast who thought they’d spotted the aging seal. Each lead brought hope, and Harry marked every one on his calendar. “I checked out four dead seals and then of course I checked out a lot of live ones. It would be an old seal, but it wasn’t Andre.” More than a month after Andre’s disappearance, a man who’d gone for a walk on a remote section of Rockport beach found Andre, washed up on the shore. “Some animals go off somewhere to die,” Harry explained. “Well, he came close to not being found because he was off where nobody bothers to go. He must have found a quiet spot and given up the ghost. Four of us went down and carried him up over the rocks, put him in the truck, and brought him home. It wasn’t easy.”
The grave is next to that of one of Harry’s beagles, but there is no marker for that one either. “My daughter has all kinds of plans for this. She wants to get a rock from under the ocean and bring it up here and put a plaque on it. But, well,” he said, bringing his shoulders up into a shrug, “I don’t know.”
Harry Goodridge has never been big on sentiment or celebrity — in many ways the pageant that surrounded Andre was his nemesis — but it isn’t that he doesn’t care. It’s just that Harry isn’t one to coocheecoo an animal, especially not Andre, and he’s certainly not one to be caught weeping over a grave. But he can’t deny that the arrival of Andre 25 years ago brought a bigger change to his life than that of his wife of 45 years or his children or his grandchildren. “Raising the kids was nothing,” he said. “But Andre, he was something else.”
May 16, 1961 , was a warm and hazy day. The bay out beyond Maine’s Rockport Harbor was flat and calm. Just before low tide, Harry, then a 45-year-old tree surgeon who took on skin-diving assignments as a side business, motored out toward Robinson’s Rock, a well-known spot where harbor seals go for sun and rest. He was looking for a seal pup, a companion to take with him when he dove, and he’d seen a newborn pup there two days before. He was hoping to spot him again. “I saw the small, sleek head fifty feet dead ahead, only its dome and round eyes above water,” Harry wrote 15 years afterward in his book A Seal Called Andre. “The seal pup raised his head as if to get a better view. The eyes that met mine showed no alarm. I looked around for the pup’s mother. No sign of her. Then a curious and totally unexpected thing happened. Instead of submerging, the pup swam directly toward the boat. I swooped down with my net and swung the little orphan aboard.”
Thus came Andre who, as you know, if you’ve paid even a little bit of attention to the news over the past 25 years, has delighted tourists with his harbor tricks and coastal migrations for much of that time. Within those rather lofty historic dimensions it seems remarkable, but back then, in 1961, it was kind of ho-hum for the Goodridges.
Aside from Andre, Harry had five kids, ages 7 to 19, and they were used to their father’s animals — there had been a robin named Reuben, a pigeon named Walter, and a sea gull named Sam Segal. Even a bat that he’d trained to eat flies from his hand. The seals were more fun. Before Andre, their father had brought home Marky and then Basil. The year before, Life magazine had come up and taken pictures of Basil and Harry underwater and made a big picture story out of it and called it “Skin Diver’s Best Friend.” Skin diving was a brand-new sport, and the whole idea of man befriending seal, or vice versa, was, well, news. But shortly after that, Basil was eaten by a shark on one of Harry’s shark-hunting expeditions.
Now here was Andre. Andre swam with them and went sledding with them. He splashed around in their bathtub and watched Flipper with them on TV in their living room. He rode around in the back of the station wagon, startling neighbors with his forthright gaze. And, like a dog, Andre was trained. Harry taught him to shake hands and hide his eyes with his flipper as if in shame. He learned to leap through a motorcycle tire like a dolphin. Crowds gathered at the town landing when Harry went down to feed Andre. Word spread about this, and by the time he was a year old he was on his way to becoming a star.
In those early years, he spent quite a bit of time inside the Goodridges’ house, which is just up the hill from the harbor. The first year he was up at the house just about every day, sometimes all day. After a while he’d disappear during the day. “That was OK because I figured eventually he’d go wild anyway,” Harry recalled later on that chilly summer day, after his visit to Andre’s grave. “But then he’d come back at night and get up onto the float and wait for me to come down and pick him up. Every damn night. I always had a fear that someone from a zoo or an aquarium would grab him so I kept my eye on him and took him home. I could carry him under my arm back then.” Harry stopped a minute. He was in his home office which used to be headquarters for his tree business from which he is now retired. In those early days, Andre used to doze beside the desk here while Harry worked on his books. Most of what surrounds Harry now has to do not with trees but with Andre. Though Harry’s children are all grown up and he’s got grandchildren in high school, there is only one picture on the wall: a lifesize framed photo of Andre. Harry laughed and continued, “He still liked to come up here, but toward the end it took four men to carry him.”
“But that was the first year,” Harry said, shifting back into the past, “and when winter came, the harbor froze over and the ice cakes were banging together, smash, smash, smash, and I didn’t see him again for five months.”
Whatever perils Andre survived in the wild will remain unknown, but those he survived within the kingdom of mankind at times seemed insurmountable. It wasn’t just the ice but also the lobstermen and the fishermen, some of whom got plain fed up with Andre and the way he’d sleep in their boats at night and pull on their oars when they were trying to row out to their boats. Maybe give them a good splash, just for fun. There were threats and there were some unpleasantries. Harry, who was the Rockport harbormaster back then, began to fear for Andre’s life.