‘Seal Hike’ spurs memories of past April 1 Adventure
While checking out Twitter notifications from New York State Parks earlier this month, an announcement came through for a “Seal Hike” from Montauk State Park. Yes, there are seals spotted regularly on Long Island, having witnessed some at a recent state writers conference. Have you ever seen a seal in the Niagara River though?
It was about 20 years ago if memory serves me correctly (maybe longer) when I had an excited phone call from Carmen Presti of Niagara Falls (at the time), well known for his work with The Primate Sanctuary in Niagara County. It was March and he had recently been notified by a local Boy Scout troop hiking in the Niagara Gorge that someone had spotted a harbor seal in the lower Niagara River – specifically in the Devil’s Hole area.
Fact or fiction? They have never been sighted here before. Carmen set out to prove or disprove the sighting. That was when he sent me a clear photo of a seal nestled in a big rock outcropping with the New York Power Authority Niagara Project in the background. There was no mistaking this landmark. I have fished that area plenty of times and even the rocks looked familiar where the seal was hiding.
“You have to keep it a secret,” said Presti. “National Geographic has a new series it is airing that focuses on displaced wildlife in areas not known for different wildlife species. I am trying to get them to come in and film a show here in Niagara. Do I have your word?”
I thought about it and it was certainly a good way to gain some national attention for the area. I agreed and waited for him to contact me again. He did. Many times. Each time he expanded what was happening. A Dr. Seal (and he even made a joke about it) would be driving with his camera crew from the West Coast where they were trailering a boat from another episode that they had finished filming. It would be several days before they could arrive. This was near the end of March. Could this actually be real?
In the meantime, a side conversation developed on the Niagara County Federation of Conservation Clubs annual awards banquet. It was set for April 1 in Lockport and I was the emcee. As the plans began to unfold, and no news of the National Geographic crew and the displaced harbor seal had leaked out, we decided that if Dr. Seal arrived by April 1, he could be a special guest at the dinner and he would announce that they had found a harbor seal in the Niagara River.
I had seen several pictures of the seal and I knew that it could not have been photoshopped in. Heck, I did not even know what that was 20 years ago. I think I still had a camera that was loaded with film.
The day of reckoning finally came and Presti approached me early on at the dinner that he was not sure if National Geographic would arrive. He would keep me posted as the evening went on. I had to get back to work, making lists of VIP’s in the audience, assigning readers for the various awards, and organizing the plan of attack. My mind was preoccupied to say the least.
As the awards program started while everyone was finishing up their meals, I heard one of the back doors open. We were in between awards and I stopped talking to watch Presti negotiate the narrow opening … with a full-sized harbor seal! No, it was not still alive. It was a taxidermy mount that he had obtained from his travels and he carried through the group of 150 people in attendance.
Slowly the laughter began to build, and the color of my face became more crimson with each passing second. He set it on the front table and grabbed the microphone from my hand while his wife Christie passed around the photos from the gorge.
Presti went on to explain the elaborate ruse he had concocted, recapping his story during the Federation banquet, and completing the joke – on April Fool’s Day!
No one likes a good joke more than me and Presti had pulled it off. And, no, there are no harbor seals in the Niagara River. The photos he sent me? He carried the fake seal down into the gorge and found a good spot to take a photo or two, from a great vantage point. It surely involved some work, but to him it was worth it. It still makes me laugh today.