College of the Atlantic Researchers Unravel the Mysteries of Whales from 'The Rock'

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 8/13/02

The Rock, the most distant of Maine’s 2,500 islands, is a prominent whale research station.
(Photo by Jeremy D'Entremont,

The first glimpse of Mt. Desert Rock inching above the ocean horizon seems like a mirage. We’re two hours and 25 miles out in the Atlantic from Mt. Desert Island, but as our boat approaches The Rock, we can see that it really is dry land, or, to be exact, granite ledges. Bobbing like corks in water, the resident seals give us their full attention, as we negotiate the tricky transfer to an inflatable raft. Within a few exciting minutes, we’ve clambered onto The Rock, the most distant of Maine’s 2,500 islands, and a prominent whale research station.

There are a half dozen scientists and students from the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor spending the summer on The Rock, with only a lightkeeper’s house, boat and generator sheds and a 70-foot tower. Researchers have worked from the island for 20 years trying to unravel the mysteries of the endangered humpback and finback whales, and their work has been nothing less than history-making.

Today, the research group, known as Allied Whale, is a recognized leader in the development of photographic identification (photo-ID) of whales from scars, natural color patterns and other distinguishing marks. "The technique has been adopted worldwide," says Sean Todd, senior researcher with Allied Whale. "We’re very proud of that." Allied Whale houses a photo catalog that has grown to include more than 8,000 whales from the Gulf of Maine to Antarctica. Through photo-ID, scientists can track whales’ migration, population and reproduction.

A visit to The Rock, ever how briefly, is a rare treat for anyone outside the scientific community or COA. The season that whales are in the area and that researchers have time to be away from the mainland is short, and consequently there’s serious attention to the work at hand – not entertaining tourists. But the story of The Rock is an important one for the college to get out to the public and a way to enhance people’s understanding of whales.

Whales were brought to near extinction by intensive, mechanized whaling that slaughtered hundreds of thousands for their meat, oil and baleen (brush-like plates in the jaw used to strain food from water). While the killing has decreased, risks to whales, which are protected by law, have increased thanks to pollution, the growing number of shipping vessels and entanglement in fishing nets.

Researchers have worked from the island for 20 years trying to unravel the mysteries of the endangered humpback and finback whales.
(Allied Whale photo)

One of the greatest challenges whale researchers face is what makes good whale habitat and what conservation measures are needed. "The ocean is very difficult to model," says Todd, a field leader at The Rock. "There are so many variables we don’t know or can’t quantify them all." But they keep trying.

On any given summer day – weather permitting – the crew spends hours bobbing up and down in 14-foot rigid-hull inflatable rafts in the open ocean, photographing whales. They also use a crossbow to dart the mammals and get tissue samples for DNA analysis that will reveal sex, kinship and genetic diversity of the population. While the whales are the main research focus, these researchers also study other wildlife in the area, such as plankton, invertebrates, fishes, birds and seals.

The Rock’s value has led COA to embark on a new venture. The island "has been very much a research station," says Todd, "and the education that has gone on has been very much ad hoc." That’s changing. The building that serves as a generator shed is being converted into a laboratory and classroom, and educational studies – for students and others. It may be operated independently from the research program, Todd says.

Long before COA established itself on The Rock, the distant island was already notable. It boasted of over 140 years of operation as an important Gulf of Maine lighthouse, pounded by wild storms and occupied by some of the most stalwart Yankee "keepers" imaginable, given the island’s remoteness.

The Rock is actually the tip of an underwater mountain that makes the immediate area around it relatively shallow; 500 feet out, the depth plunges to 300 feet. It’s treeless and, essentially, without soil. Herring and black-backed gulls populate pockets of the granite ledges. Seals are also year-rounders at the island, at most only 17 feet above the sea. Gannets, shearwaters, petrels and other seabirds ride the waves nearby.

Scientists believe The Rock is such a hot spot for marine studies because it and the nearby underwater Inner Schoodic Ridges are places of "upwelling." Strong tides, shoals and clear, deep waters stir up nutrients that attract most of the ocean food chain, from microscopic plankton to the giant whales.

On the clearest days, visibility is 10 to 12 miles, and one can see the mountains of Cadillac and Sargent in Acadia National Park. Four to six miles northeast of the island, humpback, fin and minke whales congregate in the summer. Right whales also pass by on their way to the more easterly Bay of Fundy.

It’s easy today to see why researchers are willing to endure isolation, communal living and no hot showers to live at The Rock for weeks or months. The visual environment – miles of blue water in all directions and stunning sunrises and sunsets -- is mesmerizing, and the opportunity for such an experience is rare. But how lighthouse keepers and their families could live there year-round for years is food for thought. Storms and fog can aggravate the human psyche.

The researchers have created a whale, seal and porpoise field guide and video.
(Available from Allied Whale)

The Rock’s light station, at the entrance to Blue Hill and Frenchmen’s bays, was established in 1830. Back then "the light" was a beacon on the roof of a small house. In 1847, a stone, conical-shaped tower was built and serviced by a Coast Guard tender. Today, the tower still serves mariners and is used as an observation platform for researchers.

In the early 70s, just after COA was founded, the Coast Guard agreed to allow the new environmental studies institution to use the station. Steve Katona, now the college president, was a biologist back then, and he wanted to study endangered whales. "The first task was to learn if any whales lived" at The Rock, he recalls. Katona led a group from COA to see what was out there.

"The weather was perfect, the sea was flat, and we saw eight whales swimming near that island," he says. "We were pretty sure they were fin whales, but there were few materials or photographs available." Katona decided right away that The Rock would be an ideal place to photograph and study whales at close range, and he also had the idea to create a whale, seal and porpoise field guide. The Coast Guard provided a summer bed for a student or two during the years they occupied the island, and Katona’s field guide was published in 1975.

When the light was automated in 1977, COA expanded the number of researchers to include women and operate boats from the island. In 1995, COA acquired the 40-foot research vessel Indigo. This enabled them to expand research efforts at The Rock as well as at the college’s other field station on Great Duck Island, where studies are focused on Leach’s storm petrels, gulls and guillemots.

The Coast Guard gave COA title to The Rock in 1996, when it turned over ownership of a number of Maine lighthouses to communities, non-profits and individuals, in exchange for public access and preservation. The Guard still maintains the right of access to the aids to navigation equipment on the island, and COA is responsible for the buildings and maintenance of the structures. It is now the oldest land-based marine mammal research station on the East Coast.

Research is conducted from The Rock from the first of July, when the whales begin arriving in the area, to the end of August, when the research leaders must leave to attend to teaching duties at COA. By that time, weather can worsen from the effects of Southern hurricanes, making landings at The Rock more difficult.

On a recent Saturday, this reporter hitched a ride on Indigo. Because the dock at The Rock is in disrepair, the island is accessible only in the several hours around high tide. We arrived in late afternoon, loaded with water, food, and gear for the islanders.

In 1995, COA acquired the 40-foot research vessel Indigo.
(Allied Whale photo)

The boat can handle 24 passengers, and it’s rare for no one to be traveling with Capt. Andrew Peterson, who makes one or two trips to The Rock every week. On this particular trip, there are several students heading for one or the other field stations, as well as Judy Allen, a research associate and an old hand at The Rock.

We pass time on the boat talking about Allen’s work that goes back to the beginning of Allied Whale. Her personal interest has been in identifying humpback whales, and she considers her time on The Rock and at sea in the Zodiacs taking photos of whales a special part of her research.

In years past, Allen remembers spending all day in the inflatables working three to four miles off The Rock among the whales. "You had to take plenty of sunscreen, hats, food and water," she says. "You went out prepared. Certainly it was tiring, but everyone was so dedicated. If you asked, people would say it was great."

Allen still participates in the photo-ID work, but the Zodiac team is limited to being out in open sea to four or five hours around high tide when the dock is safety accessible. Despite being so far from dry land and in such a small boat, she doesn’t think of the situation as particularly scary. The crews have GPS equipment, and "we’re always extremely safety conscious," Allen says.

Before photo-ID, identifying whales was initially done by tagging them with small, stainless steel darts with information stamped on them. They were shot into commercially hunted species but could be retrieved only after a whale was killed and processed. The decline of whaling brought an end to tagging.

Allen says that scientists then turned to photo-ID because whales’ distinctive markings are comparable to fingerprints in humans. Humpbacks raise their flukes above water when diving, and their tails reveal black and white markings on the undersides. The dorsal fins of heads of right whales sport callosities (crusty growths). There can be a combination of skin coloration, dorsal fin shapes and distinctive scars on blue, finback, minke, gray and killer whales. According to Sean Todd, the scars are often from ships’ propellers.

Whales’ distinctive markings are comparable to fingerprints in humans.

Allied Whale scientists collaborate with colleagues all over the world to identify individual whales. The photo catalogue has "become part of the study of population ecology of the animals," says Allen. "It lets you put those numbers into a model for population estimates. Also, we began to understand how whales are distributed in the Atlantic and in the Gulf of Maine. When you see animals repeatedly, you can tell how old they are, their calving interludes and social dynamics – all initiated through photo-ID."

The North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog documents 6,000 individuals; the North Atlantic finback Whale Catalog, 800 individuals’ and the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalog, 1,500 individuals. More has been learned about whales’ ecology through photo-id than any other way, Allied Whale researchers say.

A visitor to The Rock quickly appreciates the element of time. Once Indigo ties up to the mooring, the pressure is on to unload gear and passengers, converse with the staff about needed tools and materials and reload. Fortunately, the water is about as calm as it gets, and negotiating off and on the boat goes smoothly. There are hundreds of gray and harbor seals turning their heads around and around to follow our moves.

The resident gulls are aflutter as we walk their grounds, filled with chicks about to fledge. Until the dock is repaired, everything unloaded onto the island must be hand-carried across the ledges to the facilities.

The Rock is craggy, all right. There is no soil, although caretakers tried. In 1858, a lightkeeper brought over a barrel of soil to plant flowers. It washed away continuously from storms but was replaced now and then by sailors. There was a greenhouse at one time, says Judy Allen, but it "had to go" to meet the national historic landmark regulations.

The Coast Guard gave COA title to The Rock in 1996

After hauling all the gear, Sean Todd offers a tour of the premises. The lightkeeper’s house is actually two houses joined together. There are eight rooms with kitchen, living room with woodstove, dormitory space, an office, mud room, shower room and bathroom. The house needs painting inside and out, but it’s clean and remarkably tidy for the number of people living together without all the normal conveniences.

The bathroom, Todd explains, is a bucket that gets emptied at sea daily. Bathing and cooking water is rainwater collected from the roof and funneled into cisterns in the cellar. "Everyone," he says, "is required to take a shower every three days." Hundreds of gallons of bottled drinking water are hauled in from Bar Harbor.

The station has electricity produced from a diesel-powered generator. There’s a solar panel too but it’s used by the Coast Guard to power the lantern in the tower. Communication is via radios to the boats and cell phones to the mainland. Most of the island visitors have personal cell phones, and Todd says they’re hoping to establish e-mail communication via satellite, as has already occurred on Great Duck Island.

Managing daily life in good spirits is essential to carrying out the research work, and a sense of humor is necessary, says Allen. The great equalizer, regardless of degree or title, is chores. Everyone takes his or her turn preparing meals, cleaning and emptying the bathroom bucket. "It makes this fun," says Todd. "Everyone has to hang together to make it work."

"Three things we don’t skimp on – food, fuel and water," adds Todd. When we sit down to dinner, the food abundance is obvious. Student and chef-of-the-day Bethany Holm offers a delicious tofu dish (many of the crew are vegetarian), and, for carnivores, hamburg for tacos. Holm points out that the house "has a chocolate shelf" for the sweet eaters, and hot brownies are on tap for dessert later.

A tour of The Rock isn’t complete without a visit to the tower, and Todd is an ebullient guide. As we negotiate the musty-smelling winding stairway, the beacon sounds. The Rock’s signature pattern is two seconds on, two seconds off, two seconds on and 24 seconds off. If only the tower could talk, it would tell harrowing stories of shipwrecks, rescues and merciless storms that have tossed huge boulders as big as 75 tons onto the island plateau.

Out on the tower’s viewing platform, Todd notes that a lot of observation goes on here because visibility on a clear day is so distant. There were at least 1,700 seals around the island earlier in the day, most of them harbor seals. "The theory is that grays are increasing in number because they’re larger and more aggressive," he says. "Certainly it’s probably a natural thing for grays to displace harbor seals. The question is whether we need or want to intervene."

The Rock is home to gray seals year-round. Gray seals pup in winter, but no one has stayed on The Rock to document it, Todd says. "Certain whales may also stay in the Gulf of Maine [in winter], and we don’t know why. It may be they are not reproductively active. There are some interesting questions to answer," Todd says, if there are still individuals rugged enough to brave the harsh elements. He jokes that anyone who wanted to try a winter residence could turn the experience into a "Maine Survivor [tv] show."

One of the most fascinating questions that DNA research is focusing on is the extent to which kinship is meaningful over the course of the whales’ lives.

Whales Ask Intriguing Questions

The more the Allied Whale researchers learn about marine mammals in the Gulf of Maine, the more intriguing questions they find to study.

According to College of the Atlantic President Steve Katona, one of the most fascinating questions that DNA research is focusing on is the extent to which kinship is meaningful over the course of the whales’ lives. "Studies elsewhere by other investigators show that kinship is very important in some dolphins and toothed-whales, but far less is known about its long-term significance in baleen whales," he says.

There are also interesting questions regarding the whales’ role in the food web. Finback whales are abundant enough to function as major consumers of herring, sand lance and other small schooling fishes in the gulf. "The whales appear to have maintained their fishery sustainably for thousands of years," says Katona. "The biopsy samples used for DNA analysis contain blubber from which the diets of the whales can be roughly inferred using analysis of stable isotopes. In time we hope to be able to extend the ecological scope of the investigation by looking at the effect of fine-scale oceanographic currents on the distribution of whales and their prey," he says.

The human impact on whales off The Rock is mostly seen in their propeller scars, but there’s another potential harm in the making. "We have this incredible high-speed ferry [The Cat] marching across whale grounds," says Todd. "We don’t know the effect. We’re looking into it. Canada has been very successful in moving shipping lanes with regard to right whales," Katona noted. But in the U. S., there are no regulations addressing the issue and no environmental impact study required for The Cat to operate in coastal whale waters.

Todd believes that mediating a solution protective of right whales would be difficult because the ferry company "is interested in the most economic route." Any solution to problems facing whales must benefit all parties, he says.

(This article appeared in the August issue of Northern Sky News.)