Twenty-one miles out to sea, isolated Mount Desert Rock is home to Mount Desert Light along with the several outbuildings that comprise the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station, overseen by faculty member Sean Todd. Each low tide, hundreds of seals haul out on the bare ledges, the highest of which rises only seventeen feet above sea level. Above, gulls circle and cry without end, while every thirty seconds the foghorn moans. A few plants tenuously grow on the three-and-a-half-acre island, but nary a tree. On the nation’s entire east coast there is no lighthouse more exposed, none further out to sea.

In 1972, Steve Katona, COA’s founding biology faculty member and former president, took a boatful of students out to the Rock and discovered that whales were diving near the island. Soon the Rock (or MDR) became a platform for scientists from Allied Whale, COA’s marine mammal research program, also founded by Steve Katona. In 1998, the college acquired MDR from the Coast Guard.

Each summer as many as six hundred seals, upwards of four hundred herring and black-backed gulls, and three dozen eiders can be seen daily. Humpback, finback, and even northern right whales are lured to the region by the upwellings of deeper, colder, nutrient-rich waters. Joining them are harbor porpoises and common and white-sided dolphins. Add to that population COA students and alumni researchers, along with scientists from such institutions as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and you have a busy few acres.

Students come to the island to conduct research and collect ecological data. Each day they rotate a watch from the tower from 0600 to 1800, an hour on, maybe an hour-and-a-half off, searching for whales and porpoises, noting fishing boats and tankers. At the height of each tide and at its ebb, counts of the seal and bird populations are also taken. In the late summer of 2015, eighteen COA students lived on MDR for a two-week field studies class in marine mammal biology. Before the students arrived, and after, a number of carpenters worked to repair the damage wreaked on the buildings by Hurricane Bill and Tropical Storm Nemo. The repairs are funded by a grant from the Mars family.

In 2014, Grace Shears ’17 and Teresa Bompczyk ’17 were among ten students conducting research on the Rock. Grace was studying seal morbidity and mortality, characterizing wound types and severity. Teresa analyzed planktonic communities to identify the zooplankton found in different locales, depths, and seasons. She gathered the plankton by dragging a large, fine-meshed net behind one of the dinghies to collect water samples—a process known as a plankton tow—then viewed the results under a microscope. There is no better way to display the excitement and dedication of these young scientists than by excerpting a few pages from their entries to the daily log.—Donna Gold

Leaving Frenchman Bay's Porcupine Islands behind as COA's M/V Osprey heads to Mount Desert Rock.Leaving Frenchman Bay's Porcupine Islands behind as COA's M/V Osprey heads to Mount Desert Rock. Credit: Photo by Izik Dery ’17FIRST GRACE WRITES:

July 26, 2014, Saturday

… So we got an article today about great white sharks in New Brunswick and there was a picture of their fins. We realized the fins Sophie [Cox, a summer researcher from the United Kingdom] and I saw are definitely not basking sharks, more likely great whites, not to mention the mysterious splashes we’ve been seeing lately. Chris [Tremblay ’03, station manager] also said they saw a “basking shark” fin the other day, but he says he’s suspicious it may have been a great white. I want to see one so badly!

ITT [COA’s summer high school session, Islands Through Time] is coming Wednesday, and that reminds me, Sean brought out the disentanglement gear, in case we get any more entangled seals (hopefully not, but it’ll be really great to have out here).

Teresa and I went swimming yesterday and we found out today from the CTD [an instrument that measures the ocean’s temperature, depth, and salinity] that the water is still just 50 degrees F. Haha. So we’ve been swimming in 50 degree water with potentially large great whites, huzzah. Well, it’s been a long day.—GS

July 27, Sunday

Fairly uneventful day. Chris has us practicing landings in the cove and that was pretty fun.

We had one whale earlier today, but none since then. I’ve been working on the list of MDR birds I promised Matt [Messina ’16]; I’ve got twenty-three species so far. Today I’ve seen a puffin, some double-crested cormorants, semipalmated sandpipers, spotted sandpipers, gannets (juvenile and adult), and … the first common terns of the season! Very exciting.

I really can’t wait to see a humpback; the blows we saw today looked suspicious: not quite fin whale blows, but no flukes so we weren’t sure. It was fairly foggy so we figure they were fin whale blows distorted by fog. (We were sure they weren’t humpbacks, not sure if they were fins.)—GS

July 31, Thursday

Today was hectic, but fun. It was quite foggy this morning and we were limited in our activities, though it cleared up later on. I helped Porcia [Manandhar ’17] band chicks and took groups of ITT kids to see seals. We launched Delphis [one of MDR’s dedicated inflatable boats] and set the drift buoy [to measure currents by drifting in them as the position is logged via GPS] while Sophie, Megan [Comey ’17], and Chris did a plankton tow.

Tomorrow will be busy; we’re getting the second group of ITT kids. Chris is also taking a couple days off. Greenlight Academy [a Connecticut-based high school field camp] is coming out Monday and leaving Friday. Sadly, I’m leaving with them.

To end this entry on a good note, we saw fin whales super close to the island today! Porcia had never seen a whale; it was exciting.—Cheers, GS

August 1, Friday

Chris Tremblay ’03, station manager, awaits supplies for the Rock with Khristian Mendez ’15 in the foreground.Chris Tremblay ’03, station manager, awaits supplies for the Rock with Khristian Mendez ’15 in the foreground. Credit: Photo by Izik Dery ’17… Sophie and Porcia saw a pod of whitesided dolphins this morning, which was pretty cool; they saw a large group later on the whale watch. Toby [Stephenson ’98, COA’s boat captain] came a little after lunch and we launched Sali [a buoy equipped with hydrophone and recorder to document underwater sounds. The names of MDR craft are based on the Latin terms for marine mammals: Sali is short for Balaenoptera physalus, the fin whale; Delphinus delphis is the common dolphin.] Chris showed us how to charge the batteries for the recorder. Since Chris will be gone for two days, we will be going out tomorrow to change the batteries and listen for whales. It’s going to be exciting because this evening we saw two fin whales and a huge pod of dolphins feeding right near the buoy! I cried when I saw the fin whales lunge feeding, you could even see the bait ball! [A tight spherical ball that small fish form in an attempt to evade predators.] And we saw so many shearwaters and gulls. Well, I’ve got to go help with the fire for marshmallows and enter some data.—(newly dubbed) Capt. Shearwater.

August 2, Saturday

We just had an amazing sunset and a good day. … We went out and changed the batteries on Sali and saw lots of gannets, one of them actually made a sound. I’ve never heard a gannet before, it was neat. Due to a knee injury, I didn’t do too many watches today, but I did go up the lighthouse stairs this morning with some ITT students to look at two fin whales. Others saw a basking shark and a minke.—Cheers, Shearwater

AND NOW TERESA TAKES OVER:

August 23, Saturday

We unfortunately have witnessed two incidents of intentional homicide and cannibalism here on Mount Desert Rock … it was Megan. She’s gone crazy. Just kidding! It was just an evil black-backed gull attacking herring gull chicks, one yesterday and today. I think it’s too fat and lazy to go scavenge for other food.

A dead seal is currently swashing back and forth in the cove … can’t tell what kind because it’s been nibbled on and is missing a face. I’m actually really freaked out by it.

Abby [St. Onge ’17] cooked a delicious meal of spaghetti and garlic bread (thank you Abby) last night. Hopefully tonight we can cook kabobs over a nice, non-toxic fire, as Colleen [Holtan ’17] and I rescued some driftwood from the western cove yesterday evening.

Other than that it’s been pretty quiet out here. There was a “humpy” in the NE earlier today, but our whale friends haven’t been around for the most part.—Teresa Bompczyk

August 26, Tuesday

Lots of excitement this morning. There were two fin whales (on the “small” side) hanging around not too far off shore, so Chris allowed Sophie, Anastasia [Czarnecki ’18], and myself to ride out in Delphis with him to get a closer view. It was amazing to see whales that close in such a small boat … definitely gave me a better perspective on their size. [Sean notes that all activities close to whales are strictly regulated; students and staff comply with the minimum approach distances.]

Attempted to collect plankton data but only succeeded in getting four horizontal tows, one vertical, and two CTD casts due to the tide. However, Megan and I were able to drive Delphis. Steering a boat is so different from a car—you always have to be checking and correcting your heading. I get distracted too easily on a boat.

Tried fishing yesterday off the northern side with no bait and an unimpressive lure. I was surprised to catch five fish—three pollock and two rusty orange fish I can’t identify. It was so different from freshwater fishing, especially in Buffalo, New York. Usually I go to this super-disgusting part of the Niagara River by my old house, throw a worm on the hook and wait at least a half hour before anything even bites. I’m so happy I was able to fish; it brings back great memories.

We were seeing a seal with some gear or line caught around its neck, but it hasn’t been spotted for a while. Grace has permission from Sean and Rosie Seton [COA’s marine mammal stranding coordinator] to save it (if possible) next time it hauls out.

Grace, Megan, and I went swimming in the cove this afternoon to wash up. We haven’t showered since we got here. It’s actually not too bad, except the perpetual guano on my clothes. I swear, they remember me from when I banded their chicks and are exacting revenge with air raids of excrement. Or it could be that I’ve been sleeping on guano-covered rocks for a few nights.

I received warnings about the cold, the wet, and the outhouse bucket before coming out here. I was also warned of the island’s beauty, and how I’ll never want to come off. But no one told me about the night here … the night on MDR is by far the most captivating and awe inspiring aspect of this place. I honestly don’t understand how people can even stand to sleep inside on a warm, clear night.

There’s the sound of real, live ocean waves to lull you to sleep, a gentle salty breeze, the light from the tower slowly revolving around … in the cove there’s a dazzling display of bioluminescence, fishing boat lights reflecting off the water in the distance, and the stars. I’ve never been so truly amazed in my life. Billions of distant stars are visible here … it’s so humbling. Literally, if there’s a heaven, mine would be an unceasing night on this island.—TB

August 29, Friday

I’m leaving for the season today, along with Colleen, Scott, and Dan [DenDanto ’91]. The summer went by so quickly and I’ve had so much fun and learned a lot. Mount Desert Rock is probably the most beautiful, interesting, inspiring place I’ve ever been, and I would be honored and so appreciative if I were able to come back. There’s a lot of projects and data waiting to be started and collected … hopefully next summer that will happen! Until then—TB

P.S. SLEEP OUTSIDE, at least once. You are so conveniently resting beneath one of the most clear, unpolluted (from light), beautiful night skies. Take advantage of it! Don’t let the gulls flying at night trick you into thinking they’re huge meteors …


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