The aptly-named Mount Desert Rock, as seen from above. The aptly-named Mount Desert Rock, as seen from above.Since the early 19th century the island has had a light tower, and various buildings to house light-keeper families. In the 1950s the island was occupied by the United States Coast Guard. Now it is the home of the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station.

Prime location for fieldwork

In the early 1970s, students, staff, and faculty from College of the Atlantic visited the island. They noted that the site was a prime location for marine mammal research. Both Mount Desert Rock and the nearby Inner Schoodic Ridges are areas of upwelling, creating localized zones of high biological productivity. Species commonly sighted included humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), finback (Balaenoptera physalus), and northern right (Eubalaena glacialis) whales, harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), common (Delphinus delphis) and white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus), and harbor (Phoca vitulina) and gray (Halichoerus grypus) seals.

In cooperation with the US Coast Guard, Allied Whale, the marine mammal research division of College of the Atlantic, seasonally occupied Mount Desert Rock for several decades. Mount Desert Rock became the base of summer operations for Allied Whale, and provided a foundation for important studies such as the development of photo-identification techniques for humpback and finback whales. In the mid 1990s, occupation of the island ceased as the US Coast Guard reviewed the need for Mount Desert Rock as part of the network of lighthouses off the coast of Maine. In 1996, College of the Atlantic acquired the island from the US Coast Guard.

In recognition of his financial and spiritual support to Allied Whale and College of the Atlantic, the field station was recently dedicated as the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station.

A seal taking in some sun on Mount Desert Rock. A seal taking in some sun on Mount Desert Rock.Active research

College of the Atlantic continues to maintain an active presence on Mount Desert Rock. Recently, Allied Whale completed GOMSIP (the Gulf of Maine Stable Isotope Project), using Mount Desert Rock as a base of operations. This permit-mediated research studied the impact of climate change on the trophic ecology of local whale species. Based on its success, Allied Whale has begun GOMSIP II, which will extend the study to include examination of individual diet histories using baleen, as well as calculating body health indices using drone captured images of the entire whale. With the Gulf of Maine becoming one of the most rapidly warming patches of ocean any where in the world, such research is critical in designing effective conservation management of all large whale species, but especially the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis.

Members of Allied Whale, together with staff, faculty and administration of the college, continue to spearhead the development of Mount Desert Rock as a fully operational research station that will eventually expand its research repertoire beyond marine mammal science. 

As an example of this, annual studies of the seal colony of Mount Desert Rock have provided ample evidence of predation—such as shark bites—on hauled out seals, doubtless because of the northward shift of shark populations permitted by the Gulf’s warming. These observations have prompted a deeper investigation into the populations and behaviors of sharks in the area, recently expanding to include the study of large predatory sharks in the area such as great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) and shortfin mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus). In 2022, students of the college and members of Allied Whale successfully deployed a VR2W acoustic receiver off the southern coast of Mount Desert Rock in the efforts to detect any tagged sharks in the area.

Life on “The Rock”

Mount Desert Rock has four buildings perched precariously on its rocky ledges; the boathouse, light tower, generator shed and light-keeper’s house. The boathouse has space for four research inflatable boats, and is rigged with a hydraulic hauling system and chain hoist. The light tower reaches over 70 ft above sea level, and has two exterior platforms provide excellent views 360° around the island. The generator shed is currently used as an equipment room; the college plans to convert this space into a wet-lab. Finally, the house itself has accommodations for 20 researchers/students, 2 classrooms, a recreation room, kitchen and dining room, and radio room.


Power is currently provided by a small gas generator supplying a bank of deep-cycle batteries that distribute 110V mains power via an inverter. Plans exist to convert this system to a solar array, with the generator supplying emergency power only.

Rainwater is collected via a roof collection system, is stored in two large cisterns in the basement of the building and provides a non-potable freshwater source for bathing, washing, etc.. Drinking water currently must be shipped in, although the College has proposed to install a desalination system.