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Lackawaxen Mystery: Seal Or ‘otter’ Explanation?

September 20, 2018

From birds to snakes to mammals large and small, John Joseph Fotusky says he knows his Pennsylvania wildlife.

That’s why the creature he spotted last weekend in Honesdale left him dumbfounded.

Could that animal bobbing and darting in Lackawaxen River really be a harbor seal?

“I kept looking at it, looking at it, looking at it, and I’m in just complete disbelief,” the 50-year-old stonemason said. “I was more or less in shock. I mean, we’re in Honesdale. You’re never going to see a seal in Honesdale.”

Whether the animal Fotusky saw was actually a seal — and the Pennsylvania Game Commission is more than skeptical — one thing is certain: He’s created a minor Internet sensation.

A 52-second cellphone video of the animal swimming in the Lackawaxen that Fotusky posted to his Facebook page has gone viral, with almost 240,000 views as of late Wednesday afternoon.

The encounter happened Sunday as Fotusky and his brother, David Fotusky Sr., were preparing to kayak down the Lackawaxen to Hawley with three friends.

As he and his brother waited near where Dyberry Creek enters the Lackawaxen for their friends to return from shuttling their vehicles to Hawley, Fotusky spied an animal 4½ to 5 feet long bouncing around in the river. His brother, who was intent on rigging up his fishing pole, casually suggested it might be a beaver, but Fotusky thought it looked too large.

“I was pretty amazed watching this thing, and I finally said to my brother, ‘Would you please turn around and take a look at this?’” Fotusky said. “When he did, he was just as much in awe as I was.

“I said, ’That’s a seal!” He said, ‘It is a seal!’”

Fotusky said they watched the animal for about 15 minutes — during which time they got several close looks as it swam within 3 to 7 feet of the riverbank — before it dawned on him to grab his phone out of his kayak and shoot the video.

Their three friends returned and thought they were joking about their river friend until the animal again popped its head out of the water, Fotusky said.

“It stuck around just long enough for them to see it,” he said. “Then my buddy made a seal noise and the thing went underneath the water and that was it. He took off.”

Fotusky said a marine biologist friend who viewed the video identified the animal as a harbor seal. So did the nonprofit Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey.

Although it is not common, harbor seals have been known to explore inland rivers, traveling upstream until they reach an obstruction or cannot find food before turning back, said Robert Schoelkopf, the center’s director.

He cited a number of recent examples of marine mammals making their way up the lower reaches of the Delaware River — of which the Lackawaxen is a tributary — although this would be an extreme case. The location where Fotusky spotted the animal is almost 250 river miles from the Delaware Bay.

“I have a feeling this animal just started wandering and, as long as there was food, it kept following the food north,” Schoelkopf said.

The animal has not been seen since the initial sighting Sunday, and Schoelkopf said that could mean it turned around and is headed back down the Delaware. Because harbor seals are federally protected, anyone who spots it again should stay away and not try to feed it or impede its progress, he said.

The Game Commission’s position is it’s all a case of mistaken identity. William Williams, information and education supervisor at the commission’s Northeast Region office in Dallas, said the animal is definitely not a seal.

“Yeah, it’s a river otter,” said Williams, who has watched Fotusky’s video. “They are very common up there.”

Fotusky knows there are disbelievers, but he also knows what he saw. He has seen many river otters, he said, and this wasn’t that.

“I’m 50 years old. I’m not some kid drumming up some crazy story,” he said. “I took that video and if I thought it was an otter, I would not be making myself look like a fool.”

Contact the writer: dsingleton@timesshamrock.com, 570-348-9132

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