Matthew Algeo of Maine Public Broadcasting visits marine researchers on Mount Desert Rock. Residents of this isolated island study whales and seals and have few outside distractions other than the constant blow of the foghorn.
CURWOOD: Imagine moving in with a dozen strangers, on a tiny island twenty-five miles out to sea, in a dwelling with no running water and minimal electricity. It sounds like some new "reality" TV show, but it's how some researchers from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine spent their summer on Mount Desert Rock. The scientists are studying whales and seals. Maine Public Radio's Matthew Algeo paid them a visit.
ALGEO: During the summer, humpback and finback whales come to the Gulf of Maine to feed. These two humpbacks, a cow and her calf, were recently spotted off Mount Desert Island. Whales are still mysterious creatures. They spend much of their lives deep underwater, so researchers have to be willing to go to great lengths to study them. And the researchers who come to Mount Desert Rock every summer go to very great lengths to do their work.
(Boat sound, horn blows)
ALGEO: The boat ride from Bar Harbor to Mount Desert Rock takes about two hours. The Rock, as it's known, is 25 miles from the mainland, smack in the middle of the Gulf of Maine. It's a remote, rocky, four-acre island, with a rambling two-story house, a lighthouse and a foghorn that blows every 22 seconds. One historian called the Rock "part of another world."
(Foghorn blows, seagull sounds)
ALGEO: The lighthouse was automated more than 20 years ago. Today the rock is uninhabited, except in the summer, when a dozen or so researchers from the College of the Atlantic come to the tiny island to study whales and seals. They live without plumbing, and at night, they work by candlelight and oil lamps. Dan Dendanto studies finback whales and manages the research station on the Rock. He says the living conditions are primitive.
DENDANTO: There are things that we all miss about the mainland. Regular showers. Mail every day. The ability to run to the convenience store.
ALGEO: Despite the harsh conditions, whale researchers like Dendanto are drawn to the Rock because whales are drawn to the Rock. As far as the cetaceans are concerned, it's a great place to eat. As the ocean's currents hit the island, plankton are forced to the surface of the water. The plankton are eaten by small fish like herring, and the fish are eaten by whales.
(Wind and bird noise atop the lighthouse)
UZ: You're looking for a blow, for finbacks and humpbacks.
ALGEO: Ozlem Uz is a native of Turkey and a recent College of the Atlantic graduate. She usually starts each day on the Rock by climbing fifty feet to the top of the lighthouse. With binoculars, she scans the horizon, looking for puffs of mist rising above the water - whale blows. Uz can tell a whale by its blow. Humpbacks have short, squat ones and finbacks have tall, thin ones.
UZ: There's another blow! To the southeast. That's a finback, too. See how tall the blow is?
ALGEO: After the researchers find out where the whales are, they set out in small motorboats to catch up with them. But whales are elusive and surprisingly fast. Some can swim fifteen miles an hour. If they find one, the researchers take a picture of its fins. Each whale has unique markings on its fins, like fingerprints on humans. Judy Allen has been studying whales for more than twenty years and she helped pioneer the photographic identification technique.
ALLEN: That gives us information about a lot of aspects of the whale biology. It tells us about breeding patterns, calving intervals. We can determine things about social structure of these animals.
ALGEO: If they can get close enough to a whale, the researchers also try to get a sample of its skin. Dan Dendanto says this is a useful way to study whale breeding patterns.
DENDANTO: We use a rather modern version of the 13th century crossbow that has a modified arrow tip which is like a punch, and it removes a piece of skin just like a cookie cutter would work in dough. And it removes a piece of skin about the size of a pencil eraser, and from that piece of skin we can extract the cells, and, more importantly, the nucleic acids which occur within those cells, and then we can use that DNA for a number of different types of investigation.
ALGEO: Whales aren't the only subject of the researchers on Mount Desert Rock. Seals are studied here, too. During the summer, the island is home to more than a thousand gray and harbor seals, and Steve Renner counts them all.
RENNER: 13AHU sleep, 1JHU change, in response 1AHU....
ALGEO: Renner is a grad student who's on the Rock to study seal behavior. He watches the seals that haul out of the water and congregate on rock ledges just off the island. Renner spends as many as six hours a day counting the seals, identifying them by species, age and sex and cataloging their behavior.
RENNER: With the scan method, I will start on one side of a ledge and go across, pretty much, animal by animal and just give them a quick look, determine what species they are, what sex they are, and what behavior they might be doing and categorize that as best I can. So, the idea is to get to figure out what proportion of animals are doing a certain behavior nearly simultaneously and projecting that onto a single animal to see the amount of time an animal would spend doing a given behavior, such as sleeping or being involved in an aggressive encounter with another animal.
ALGEO: Gray seals and harbor seals are different species. Gray seals can weigh as much as a thousand pounds. Harbor seals usually weigh less than half that. But Renner says both species have something in common: they're not very active and counting them for hours on end can get a little repetitious.
RENNER: By hour number three or hour number four it gets a little sketchy sitting in the seal blind by yourself, just noting the same behaviors. And as the tide goes out I find that more and more animals are spending more and more time sleeping, so the scans get much more monotonous. You have 200 animals and 198 of them are sleeping. (Laughs)
ALGEO: Life on the Rock can sometimes be as monotonous as counting sleeping seals. When the fog rolls in, the researchers can be stuck inside for days with few diversions.
(Sound of pool balls racked up)
ALGEO: There is a pool table in the house, reportedly flown in by helicopter several years ago, when the coast guard managed the property. There's also a computer and a cell phone, but not much else.
(Sound of break)
ALGEO: Despite the isolation, the hard work, the primitive conditions, the researchers who spend their summers on Mount Desert Rock always find it hard to leave. And, says researcher Kari Barber, adjusting to life back on the mainland can be hard.
BARBER: Out here, it's kind of like you're living in your own world. And you're somewhat connected, but you're not. And you're just so immersed in your work and you're immersed in your research, that going back is kind of like, "Wow, I really don't like being here one bit."
ALGEO: At summer's end, the researchers on Mount Desert Rock leave the island. The research station is now closed for the year and the Rock, once again, will face the winter alone. For Living on Earth, I'm Matthew Algeo.
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