January 17, 2018
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Living the Extreme on Mount Desert Rock

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On a clear day standing anywhere on Mount Desert Rock (MDR), distant islands and mountains may speckle the horizon – the only indication that civilization is even somewhat nearby. The isolation of “the Rock” is what makes it invaluable as College of the Atlantic’s (COA) field research station, but it’s also become a rite of passage among students who have spent time collecting research on what is one of the most remote research facilities on the East Coast.

Two winters ago Christopher Tremblay ’03, Rutgers graduate student and Allied Whale collaborator Tanya Lubansky, and five COA students embarked on a winter expedition to MDR to find out if gray seals were having pups on the island. It had been approximately 50 years since anyone had spent time out on the Rock in the winter, and the expedition ended with all the makings of success: a victorious island landing, lots of seal pups, no one was hurt, and everyone stayed warm.

Mount Desert Rock is a remote, treeless 3.5 acre island situated approximately 25 nautical miles south of Bar Harbor. Since the early 19th century the island has had a light tower, and various buildings to house light-keeper families. In the 1950s the United States Coastguard occupied the island, and now it’s the home of the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station. Both MDR and the nearby Inner Schoodic Ridges are areas of upwelling, creating localized zones of high biological productivity. Species commonly sighted include humpback, finback, and northern right whales; harbor porpoise; common and white-sided dolphin; and harbor and gray seals.

In the summer of 2012 Kathy Jones, a scientist from the Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), contacted COA about using the Rock during the 2012/2013 winter season to collect information about sea spray in the open ocean. The idea was that the Rock could very well mimic conditions one would find in the open ocean. Given the successful expedition the previous winter, COA gave Jones approval to head out to the Rock, and she and another CRREL researcher trekked out to the island with Tremblay, Lubansky, Alex Borowicz ’15, and Lindsey Nielsen ’12. This crew spent a successful 30 days on MDR conducting sea spray analysis and detailed seal research.

Life on the Rock in the summer is idyllic; stunning in its quiet and full of summery island images you immediately conjure: picturesque sunrises/sunsets, bugs buzzing, star-filled night sky, the lulling sound of waves, and swims in the chilly, salty water. Life on the Rock in the winter is, well, an entirely different story, and getting out there can be the hardest part. Landing on the island can be impossible since there’s no dock or pier to sidle up to. Instead, there’s a ramp on the north side that has an electric winch and wooden dolly that are used to move the boat up and down. Making matters more challenging, not just any boat can approach the ramp given the rocky shore, and especially if there’s a major swell running up the ramp from multiple directions. Typically, landing on the ramp is done in a small inflatable boat, but when there’s a massive swell, wind, and a lot of fog, landing a small inflatable boat can be your worst nightmare.

This winter Tremblay, Lubansky, Jones, and a new researcher from CRREL, Kerry Claffey, began the second and final season of CRREL research on the Rock. And they had a very rocky start. After some difficulties with their inflatable boat, Ego, their landing on the island didn’t go exactly as planned:

“A very large swell came up right after landing and pushed the boat off the east side of the ramp,” Tremblay wrote on his blog, Mount Desert Rock: Winter 2014 [http://mdrwinter2014.wordpress.com/]. “The movement caused the boys to slip, they both fell down onto the ramp. I had a hold of the bow line, and Matt had a hold of it as well, and so he is basically my lifeline to the island. He pulls me up and we try and get the boat back up the ramp, but this set of swells is very large, each bigger than the last, and we cannot secure ‘Ego’. As it gets dragged down I see another five foot swell coming in and decide we need to all get out of the way – safety first. The boat goes off to the west of the ramp this time around and pushed onto the rocks bow first. We no longer have control.”

Tremblay was the station manager in charge of keeping the station operational, Lubansky was assisting all efforts including conducting seal surveys daily, and CRREL carried out daily operations related to catching sea spray. Rebecca Frowine, a student from the University of New England, joined the team for a few weeks to conduct a study on gray seal vocal behavior.

A big part of their existence on the Rock pertained to dealing with nature and exactly how to live with the varying temperatures, high winds, and precipitation. There’s not a whole lot of stillness and calm out on the island in the winter months, which leads to extreme conditions: dwindling heat, food, and water; broken and damaged equipment; property damage; and a general feeling of isolation.

MDR has three buildings perched precariously on its rocky ledges; the light tower, generator shed, and light-keeper’s house. The light tower reaches over 70 feet in height above sea level, and has two exterior platforms providing excellent 360° views. The house itself has accommodations for 20 researchers/students, two classrooms, a recreation room, kitchen and dining room, and radio room.

A small gas generator supplying a bank of deep-cycle batteries that distribute 110V via an inverter currently provides power. The island has a small 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, which means getting supplies delivered is an important and integral part of survival on the Rock in the winter.

So, exactly how do you catch sea spray in the winter? CRREL used a few efforts that included setting out slides coated in vaseline that caught particles that are then looked at under a microscope; metal cylinders that collected spray and were weighed on a very sensitive balance scale; collecting frozen spray from various sites on the island that were then tested for salinity; and capturing spray plumes on video or camera, sometimes from a kite, as they would streak across the island.

Jones collected ice samples from different locations and various structures on the island, including the fog horn platform which sits at the base of the lighthouse tower. One specific sample showed 18 parts per thousand (ppt) saline, so some sea water and some fresh water. Pure seawater would be closer to 35 ppt.

“For almost 40 years Mount Desert Rock has been a cornerstone of what and how we teach here at COA,” said COA President Darron Collins ’92. “It’s emblematic of what expeditionary, hands-on/minds-on education is all about and has been a platform for launching some of the world’s most important marine scientists and conservationists.”

Tremblay and crew returned to the mainland the week of February 17th, surely with even more incredible research and stories to share with the COA community. Be sure to check out Tremblay’s diary style blog, Mount Desert Rock: Winter 2014 [http://mdrwinter2014.wordpress.com], to get an up close and in-depth look about exactly what they experienced on a daily basis.