A humpback whale, one of many marine mammals familiar to students who work with COA Allied Whale ...A humpback whale, one of many marine mammals familiar to students who work with COA Allied Whale and the Bar Harbor Whale Watch, breaches the water in the Gulf of Maine.

The wind whips through Grace Leary’s hair as she stands at her naturalist’s perch on the third story of the high-speed catamaran, scouting for signs of whales on the horizon. She scans the sea with her binoculars and preps her camera in case she spots a spout. To her left is a data sheet where she records observations, along with the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog, which has photographs of the unique tails of thousands of humpback whales in the North Atlantic. To her right, a gannet flies alongside the vessel. Behind her, over 200 tourists eagerly await word of a whale sighting.  Ahead in the distance, Leary sees the telltale spouts of humpbacks near the surface. Her eyes light up as she gets ready to photograph, observe, and talk about the whales the boat is approaching. 

Grace Leary '22 watches for whale tails and blows while working as a research assistant for B...Grace Leary '22 watches for whale tails and blows while working as a research assistant for Bar Harbor Whale Watch on boat tours.Leary says that she has always dreamt big — studying 75-foot whales aboard a 130-foot vessel kind of big. This is exactly the opportunity her research assistant (RA) internship with Bar Harbor Whale Watch (BHWW) and COA Allied Whale has given her. The highly experiential position gave Leary a chance to improve her skills matching whales through photo identification, assist with marine mammal stranding responses, marine mammal necropsies, and research on COA’s offshore island, Mount Desert Rock (MDR).

Leary had some experience with whales and seals prior to the internship through her work-study job with Allied Whale during the academic year. As an RA intern, Leary was able to apply the knowledge from her work-study position and observe marine mammals first hand in their native environments.

“The RA internship program is really important to continuing the work the Allied Whale work-study students do when they leave in the summer,” said Allied Whale Stranding Coordinator and Research Associate Lindsey Jones. “Allied Whale primarily depends on students and volunteers to do the research and stranding work that’s integral to our program. We’ve seen a lot of past interns go on to do important things.”

The interns have rotating schedules such that an RA is photographing whales aboard a BHWW vessel, an RA is matching the photographs to catalogued whales in Allied Whale’s office, an RA is assisting studies on a remote marine mammal research island owned by COA, and one RA has well-deserved time off.

“I do fin whale matching and humpback whale matching,” said Leary. The process involves photographing the identifiable characteristics of whales onboard BHWW The Bar Harbor Whale Watch places seasonal research assistants from College of the Atlantic in na...The Bar Harbor Whale Watch places seasonal research assistants from College of the Atlantic in naturalist roles on their boats, including Atlanticat.cruises and matching them to known whales in Allied Whale’s North Atlantic Fin Whale Catalog (NAFWC) and their North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog (NAHWC). For fin whales, unique patterns around the dorsal fin and chevron help to identify individuals while humpback whales are identified by the one-of-a-kind black and white patterns on their tails, more commonly called flukes.

“Matching can tell us a huge amount of information based on a noninvasive photo that’s collected,” Jones said. “It’s an easy way to get thousands of data points from across the world and look at trends without affecting their behavior or without placing a tag which could have health effects.” Photo ID can help study population, relatedness of individuals, movement patterns, and general life history. According to Jones, the NAHWC has just reached over 10,000 individual whales. 

According to Leary, some whales even have names such as Fundy, a humpback seen on BHWW’s June 17th cruise, and Ringo, a fin whale seen June 12th and 13th. When working in Allied Whale’s office, RA’s must also be prepared to respond to marine mammal strandings. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Allied Whale is legally obligated to respond to marine mammal strandings. 

COA marine mammal biology professor Sean Todd, left,and Grace Leary '22, right, work with oth...COA marine mammal biology professor Sean Todd, left,and Grace Leary '22, right, work with other students and staff to return a stranded, 500-pound mola mola (ocean sunfish) back to the water.

“We get really important data from strandings,” said Jones. “The health of marine mammals can reflect the health of the ocean.” According to Bossart’s 2010 paper published in Veterinary Pathology, the high-trophic level, long lifespan, coastal proximity, and unique fat stores that can bioaccumulate anthropogenic chemicals, marine mammals are sentinels for ocean health and public health concerns. 

“I really like stranding work, which is a new realization,” said Leary. Although Allied whale responds to both whale and seal strandings, the vast majority of cases are about seals, said Jones. Live animals are handled case by case, while dead animals can be necropsied, or autopsied, depending on the level of decomposition. According to Jones, RAs assist with data collection and even the cut, if they are brazen enough.

A final responsibility of the RAs is to spend a few weeks on Mount Desert Rock (MDR), assisting student researchers on projects. Once an RA has gotten a taste Ocean seals are an integral part of the ecology of Mount Desert Rock, a remote island owned by Co...Ocean seals are an integral part of the ecology of Mount Desert Rock, a remote island owned by College of the Atlantic. Credit: Annaleena Vaher ’21for each research project, they generally latch onto a specific one.

“I ended up gravitating toward the seal injury project,” said Leary. “It was great to be able to see seals and their behavior off-shore and in their natural habitat.”

In addition to the seal wound project, Leary did seal population counts.

“While it is a sometimes difficult task, it’s interesting to see where and when different species of seals are on the rocks around the island,” said Leary

The skills that RAs acquire through the Allied Whale and BHWW internship have helped launch many of them into successful careers in the field, said Jones.

“It’s a really good educational opportunity to train the next generation of marine mammal scientists,” she said.

Every COA student completes an 8-11 week internship before graduation. The internships can either be for-credit (440 hours) or not-for-credit (320 hours). Internships are widely recognized as important experiences for college students that continue to guide them after graduation towards employment and/or graduate school.