By Marina Cucuzza

On the boat ride back from Mount Desert Rock research station, I saw my first humpback whale. Clutching the starboard railing, I watched in awe as its giant fluke emerged from the still water and slowly descended into the deep again. Never in my life have I seen a more majestic and beautiful creature.  Before I could catch my breath it disappeared, leaving only ripples in a sea of blue—continuous smooth and steady blue.—Journal Entry 8/4/11

I spent twelve days during the summer of 2011 on Mount Desert Rock and Great Duck Island as a participant in College of the Atlantic’s Islands Through Time Summer Field Institute. I immersed myself in writing, marine biology, ecology, media, literature, and music. For twelve days I learned through COA’s interdisciplinary approach—which became a major influence on my decision to apply and attend the college.

Living on both the islands were completely separate experiences. The islands themselves are entirely different and unique places. Great Duck is a large, wooded, and teeming with life—covered in thick green grass and tall trees. There, we learned how the Leach’s storm petrels and hares have influenced the island’s ecosystem and altered its landscape over time. I contributed to the ongoing gull counts that COA student researchers have undertaken, and observed the behavior of the various bird species nesting on the island. We studied the history of the inhabitants of Great Duck and learned how their presence shaped its ecology.’

In contrast, Mount Desert Rock is a small offshore island containing no vegetation. The only reason it is even remotely habitable is that it is a base for a lighthouse. The foghorn goes off constantly, all day and all night, to guide boats on their journeys. The rock is covered in massive swarms of herring gulls protectively guarding their fuzzy chicks, and rimmed by populations of grey and harbor seals sprawled on the rocks. From the top of the lighthouse, whales can be spotted with the naked eye. Alongside other COA student researchers, I stared into the horizon looking for whale activity and counted seals for precise recording in logbooks.

I am surprised I slept so well last night, this being my first night on Mount Desert Rock. I was sure that the constant honking of the foghorn would keep me tossing and turning. I am making tea before my watch in the lighthouse. This morning, I get to count the harbor and grey seals that cover the rocks on the outskirts of the island. Later on, we have a lesson on tides and the intertidal zonation, and tonight it is my turn to help cook dinner. I absolutely love being out here on these islands. Being able to participate in the watches and help the students log the activity makes me feel like part of a team, like my work here is helping. I wish I could stay here longer. —Journal Entry 8/7/11

Throughout the program, islands were studied as a theme—both metaphorically and ecologically. In the literature sessions we discussed the meaning of isolation and connection. We related our experience of living far offshore to the novel Speak to the Winds, by Ruth Moore, which depicts the physical and mental aspects of community island life. We traveled to Gotts Island, where the novel was based, and learned about the history and struggles of life offshore a century ago.

Campus is an island itself, although it doesn’t feel that way because it’s connected to the mainland by a causeway. There, we spent a great deal of time in book discussions, reading the literature of islands, and developing our personal writing skills. The beautiful, peaceful scenery provided inspiration for journal writing. We had an introductory music class where we practiced piano fundamentals and learned some basic music theory. One day, we went to Otter Cliff to learn more about Maine`s intertidal ecosystem. We spent that day sliding on seaweed-covered rocks, identifying as many creatures as we could find. Another day was spent digging in the mudflats at low tide, searching for worms and clams. Later on, we went on Diver Ed`s boat to learn about subtidal marine species. He dove beneath his vessel to retrieve lobsters, sea cucumbers, and giant sea stars for us to hold and study. Towards the end of the program, we went into town to shoot footage for an open-ended project to develop our media and photography skills.

My group interviewed tourists and locals around town to make a short video. We asked them each to share a piece of advice to give to the world, and recorded their answers. The responses ranged from “get more sleep” and “recycle more,” to “live each day happy.” It was so much fun to spend the day interviewing visitors from around the globe. I loved working in the computer lab, editing and compiling clips to complete the video.—Journal Entry 8/10/11

The Islands Through Time program was such an incredible and memorable experience. It allowed me to immerse myself in COA and to gain a firsthand understanding of both the college and its surrounding island communities. It was so amazing to have the opportunity to work with students from all over the world for those twelve days, helping them with their data collection and living on the offshore islands.

So easy it is to lose one’s thoughts with each sweet breeze of fresh sea air. Then, out of nowhere, a splash in the distance would pull me to reality, and a flood of excitement would flush through my body as I watched a whale’s fluke break the surface of the water. In a spell of enchantment, I fumbled for the clipboard and pencil to record the time, location, and length of activity of the sighting.
—Journal Entry 8/11/11

It’s remarkable how my closest moments with nature yielded from isolation. I recall the feeling of peace and bliss I felt staring at the horizon for hours, watching the gentle waves form from a distance and break at the shore. Even now, more than a year later, when I look out into the ocean I often find my thoughts trailing off to the time I spent on the islands that summer.