Maintaining research stations on Mount Desert Rock and nearby Great Duck Island and at its two farms on Mount Desert Island is fairly expensive, he acknowledged, but worth it because of the rare experiences they provide to students.
“In terms of how powerfully it can shape the future of students, it’s hard to put a price tag on that,” Collins said. “So, from the get-go, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this work.’”
Exactly how to make it work was another matter. The first step, he said, was to upgrade the school’s ride to and from the island by
acquiring Osprey, a 46-foot vessel that COA put into service in the spring of 2012.
The second step — rebuilding — was made possible by a chance meeting between two people keenly interested in the environment and climate change. One was Sean Todd, the chair of COA’s marine sciences department. The other was billionaire philanthropist Forrest Mars, Jr., heir to his family’s
The two men met while on
a stormy research cruise to Antarctica in January 2013, during which Todd told Mars about the island’s severely battered infrastructure. A little more than a year later, the college announced it had received a $425,000 grant from Mars, who died in 2016, to fund the repairs. Research training
Post-Bill reconstruction was completed in 2017, just before another storm this past winter destroyed the doors on the new boathouse, continuing the station’s never-ending cycle of repairs. Barring the inevitable next big storm, students will be on the island throughout summer studying seals, birds and whales — though, in another example of climate change, only a handful of whales were seen off the island last summer as their food source migrated
farther north than usual.
In early June, in one of the first overnight trips of the season, lecturer Scott Swann, also a COA graduate, brought a group of his ornithology students out to Mount Desert Rock so they could observe nesting gulls and eider ducks, as well as other birds they might find.
“It’s kind of like a biological magnet out here,” Swann said, seated at a large table in the dining room of the lightkeepers’ house. “You come out here and you see strange birds you don’t normally see. It’s very birdy.”
Swann, who helped in the rebuilding effort after Bill, said a big part of the education students get on Mount Desert Rock is how to manage the rigors of remote field research.
Learning how to plan, transport supplies, improvise solutions with limited power and materials, and to get along with people in a place that offers little privacy provides invaluable preparation for field work in remote areas of the planet that climate change is making more accessible, he said. Even if Mount Desert Rock is expected to succumb one day to rising sea levels, there is an “economic value” to continuing to maintain the research station, he added.
“To me, it is worthwhile,” Swann said. “You’re training people to do very unique things. It’s amazing how many COA students have gone to work [on expeditions to] the polar regions. If you can learn how to drive a boat [to shore] out here, and to land materials out here, then you can do just about anything.”
Credit: Bill Trotter
Lindsey Jones, who just earned a master’s degree from COA, is working this summer as assistant manager of the research station and plans to help collect tissue samples from whales that might swim nearby. She said spending time on the island has allowed her develop skills such as using power tools, and that living in the island’s tight quarters is good training for working on a research vessel, which she hopes to do before too long.
“The social environment is really interesting, to be stranded basically on a desert island with the same eight people for weeks and weeks,” Jones said. “If you can live here, you can live on a boat, which is just as far offshore, pretty much, with possibly better facilities, like a shower or something.”
Matt Messina, a 2016 COA graduate, now works as a naturalist and guide on ecotourism cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic. Between trips north in the summer and south in the winter, he lives in Mount Desert and occasionally lends a hand on the island to his former colleagues, as he did early last month.
As a student, Messina worked three summers as an Osprey deckhand, running an inflatable tender to and from shore. He credits that experience with training him for his current job, which he hopes will lead to a career as a polar field guide author and illustrator.
Credit: Bill Trotter
“Mount Desert Rock is probably one of the toughest places in the world to land [a boat],” he said. “You probably couldn’t land a group of typical cruise ship passengers on the rock. It’s just too tricky.”
For Messina, who said there is a “macabre beauty that comes with life” on Mount Desert Rock, keeping a presence out there is a worthwhile but losing battle. The harsh elements have always worked against the research location’s infrastructure and, with the added power of climate change, are eventually going to win.
“If you took two years off and everyone went home the place would fall into ruin. It’s constant maintenance,” Messina said. “At some point, if the models are accurate, it will be unviable to operate at Mount Desert Rock. That’s kind of the reality we’re facing.”
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