Isolated, remote Mount Desert Rock home to seals, COA researchers this winter

Posted Jan. 13, 2013, at 5:23 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 13, 2013, at 6:06 p.m.

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MOUNT DESERT ROCK, Maine — After a trial period a year ago, College of the Atlantic has decided to restore something to this remote rocky outcropping that it hasn’t had at this time of year for nearly two decades: people.

Since roughly the mid-1990s, the small liberal arts college in Bar Harbor has conducted summer field studies on the 3.5-acre island, which lies more than 20 miles off Mount Desert Island and has little vegetation. Aside from a lighthouse built in 1847, lightkeeper’s house, slipway and accessory building heavily damaged in 2009 by Hurricane Bill, there is little on the barren island aside from boulders, seabirds and seals.

On a clear day, a scattering of distant islands and the mountains of Mount Desert Island on the horizon are the only indication that civilization is not that far away.

The isolation of the island is what makes it valuable as a field research station, and one of the most remote research facilities on the East Coast.

COA began bringing students out to the island in the summer in 1973 to observe seals, seabirds and nearby whales. When the Coast Guard decided in 1996 to withdraw from “the rock,” as frequent visitors refer to it, they turned the island and its facilities over to COA. The federal agency still maintains the light and foghorn on the island but everything else, including the lighthouse tower and a pool table the Coast Guard left behind in the keeper’s house, is the college’s responsibility.

Since the Coast Guard stopped stationing people on the island, no one had stayed there overnight in the winter until last January. Prior to the Coast Guard stationing personnel on the island, lighthouse keepers and their families lived on the rock year-round.

Over the past 40 years, conducting field research on Mount Desert Rock has become a rite of passage for many students at the environmentally focused college, who cherish the opportunity as undergraduates to experience the stark surroundings and conduct ecological research on the island.

In December 2011, the college sent a handful of people out to the rock for a week to see if staying on the island in the winter was feasible. After deciding it was, COA sent a half-dozen people out to the rock at the end of December 2012. They have been there for the past couple weeks with plans to stay until the end of the month.

On Saturday, a small group of people traveled out to Mount Desert Rock on the COA vessel Osprey to deliver supplies, drop one person off and bring two people back to MDI. Among the items delivered Saturday were cylinders of propane gas, diesel fuel for the generators, some tongue-in-groove boards for a carpentry project, fresh water and paper towels.

“It was great last year. We all slept in the living room [of the lightkeeper’s house],” said COA junior Barbara Beblowski, who spent only a few hours on the island Saturday. “We played Bananagrams, cribbage and card games. It was kind of like camping.”

Alex Borowicz, a “third-ish” year student at COA, has spent the past couple weeks on Mount Desert Rock surveying the island’s wintertime gray seal population. Harbor seals far outnumber gray seals on the island during the summer, but in winter it is gray seals that are more numerous.

Gray seals tend to give birth to pups on Mount Desert Rock in January and February, he said.

So every four hours, Borowicz counts the number of gray seals on the island and tries to note how many of them are mothers with pups. On Saturday, his latest counts indicated there are about 60, but by next month it could increase to more than 100.

Borowicz said the purpose of the survey is to try to establish some baseline data for the population of gray seals in the area. Before the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted in 1972, seals were hunted in the region. Gray seals were not that common in the Gulf of Maine over the following couple of decades, but their numbers have been on the increase more recently, he said. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the number of gray seals in the western North Atlantic ocean are estimated to be more than 250,000.

“It’s really difficult to get a good solid estimate of how many seals there actually are [in the area],” Borowicz said. “I’m hoping this is something we can do [each winter] over the next three or four years, to get a really better picture.”

The COA student said that in addition to counting seals, he wanted to come out to Mount Desert Rock to generally make seasonal observations about the tiny island.

“I love this place. I’m really interested in getting kind of a broad, whole picture of what the island is like all the time,” he said. “This idea that the college has had this island for years and years but has never done any work in the winter is sad, but I’m glad we’re starting to do it.”

Borowicz said the isolation of the island can be more intense in the winter, when whales in the area are scarce and there are fewer fishing boats that appear nearby. The weather is a significant factor. It has been mild over the past several days, he said, but it wasn’t during the first several days after they arrived.

“We had blowing snow but then it let up and the island was beautiful,” he said. “I’ve never seen this place covered in snow before. It was absolutely spectacular. Ice everywhere. It was cold and blowing about 40 knots [about 46 mph]. It was rough but it was quite an experience.”

Meteorologist Edgar Andreas of Northwest Research Associates has spent the past couple weeks on Mount Desert Rock using sophisticated equipment to gauge the presence of freezing sea spray and other cold climate conditions. Andreas’ research is being funded by the Office of Naval Research in anticipation of more shipping and drilling activity taking place in the arctic, where the melting of the polar ice cap is opening sections of ocean that have been iced over for as long as anyone can remember.

Andreas said he and his colleagues on Mount Desert Rock had all the harsh weather they wanted when they first arrived at the end of December.

“The first two days we were here, we didn’t know if we were going to survive,” Andreas said. “The winds were howling. We were miserable.”

Though the past several days have been mild, temperatures in Maine are expected to fall again this coming week. According to AccuWeather forecasters, temperatures could sink back into the single digits over the next several days.

But despite the cold, researchers on Mount Desert Rock have been adept at entertaining themselves. According to Chris Tremblay, the research site’s station manager, the past two Decembers they have found a unique way to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

“We started a tradition where you drop a [lobster] buoy off the tower at midnight,” he said.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.