Mount Desert Rock

History | Life on the Rock | MDR in the news | Science | Classes


mdrMount Desert Rock is a remote, treeless island situated approximately 25 nautical miles south of College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine. Since the early 19th century the island has had a light tower, and various buildings to house light-keeper families. In the 1950s the island was occupied by the United States Coastguard. Now it is the home of the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station.

In the early 1970s, students, staff, and faculty from College of the Atlantic visited the island. They noted that the site was a prime location for marine mammal research. Both Mount Desert Rock and the nearby Inner Schoodic Ridges are areas of upwelling, creating localized zones of high biological productivity. Species commonly sighted included humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), finback (Balaenoptera physalus), and northern right (Eubalaena glacialis) whales, harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), common (Delphinus delphis) and white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus), and harbor (Phoca vitulina) and gray (Halichoerus grypus) seals.

fin backIn cooperation with the US Coastguard, Allied Whale, the marine mammal research division of College of the Atlantic, seasonally occupied Mount Desert Rock for several decades. Mount Desert Rock became the base of summer operations for Allied Whale, and provided a foundation for important studies such as the development of photo-identification techniques for humpback and finback whales. In the mid 1990s, occupation of the island ceased as the US Coastguard reviewed the need for Mount Desert Rock as part of the network of lighthouses off the coast of Maine. In 1996, College of the Atlantic acquired the island from the US Coastguard. Although the Coastguard maintains right of access to the aids to navigation equipment on the island, College of the Atlantic is responsible for the buildings and maintenance of the structures on Mount Desert Rock.

College of the Atlantic continues to maintain an active presence on Mount Desert Rock. Recently, Allied Whale has initiated a five-year study of marine mammal populations in the northern Gulf of Maine, using Mount Desert Rock as a base of operations. Members of Allied Whale, together with staff, faculty and administration of the college, continue to spearhead the development of Mount Desert Rock as a fully operational research station that will eventually expand its research repertoire beyond marine mammal science. As a first step in this expansion, and in recognition of his financial and spiritual support to Allied Whale and College of the Atlantic, the field station was recently dedicated as the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station.

Life on the Rock

mdr lighthouseMount Desert Rock has 4 buildings perched precariously on its rocky ledges; the boathouse, light tower, generator shed and light-keeper's house. The boathouse has space for 4 research inflatable boats, and is rigged with a hydraulic hauling system and chain hoist. The light tower reaches over 70 ft in height above sea level, and has two exterior platforms provide excellent views 360º around the island. The generator shed is currently used as an equipment room; the college plans to convert this space into a wet-lab. Finally, the house itself has accommodations for 20 researchers/students, 2 classrooms, a recreation room, kitchen and dining room, and radio room.

Power is currently provided by a small gas generator supplying a bank of deep-cycle batteries that distribute 110V mains power via an inverter. Plans exist to convert this system to a 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, although the College has proposed to install a desalination system.

Mount Desert Rock in the News

College of the Atlantic recently made contact with former inhabitants of the island, Wilbur and Shirley York, who lived on the Rock in the late 1920s as children. Allied Whale arranged for Wilbur and Shirley to revisit Mount Desert Rock in Summer 2000. An article reviewing this visit can be found here, from the Bar Harbor Times (secondarily published in the Ellsworth American).

Science on the Rock

Mount Desert Rock is ideally located for offshore studies of marine mammals and seabirds. Thus the Rock is a perfect base-camp for members of Allied Whale, the marine mammal research group affiliate with College of the Atlantic. Allied Whale's mission is to be a center of excellence for marine mammal studies, while simultaneously providing the best experiential education possible for undergraduate and graduate students interested in a career in marine mammalogy. As such, Mount Desert Rock is an integral part of that mission, providing an offshore research platform that permits the study of marine mammals in their natural environment, while also providing a communal, educative and enriching atmosphere that promotes the growth of student' skills and knowledge.

Current research projects, with senior investigators, include:

A five-year study of the foraging ecology of balaenopterids in the northern Gulf of Maine - Dr. S. Todd (COA), D. Dendanto (UMO), and J. Allen (COA)
Behavioral interactions between harbor and gray seals - S. Renner, Dr. J. Gilbert (UMO), and Dr. S. Todd (COA/UMO adjunct)
Photo-identification of finback whales using digital video - Dr. S. Todd (COA), D. Dendanto (UMO), C.Vashro (COA), and J. Allen (COA)
The North Atlantic humpback whale catalog - R. Seton (COA), and J. Allen (COA)
The North Atlantic finback whale catalog - D. Dendanto (UMO) and C. Vashro (COA
Guano tolerant plants of Mount Desert Rock - Dr. Nishanta Rajakaruna (COA) and Nathaniel Pope (COA)

Classes on the Rock

Although College of the Atlantic owns two field stations in the Gulf of Maine, Mount Desert Rock is located furthest offshore, and represents possibly the most remote and isolated learning conditions that the college has to offer. Classes on Mount Desert Rock focus on an experiential education, not only learning the syllabus of a particular class, but also learning how to become part of a close-knit self-reliant community that depends upon its members to ensure the smooth running of the research station. Thus, a student that enrolls in a class on MDR is also signing up for a lesson in island life and community living. By the end of their stay on Mount Desert Rock, most students never want to leave! The isolated and remote lifestyle can be addictive, and the opportunity to study wildlife in situ, in an offshore environment, is a unique opportunity unmatched by most other undergraduate institutions.

Courses offered on Mount Desert Rock by College of the Atlantic fall into two categories: those offered by the summer graduate/continuing education program, and undergraduate classes offered by the college during the normal school year.

In summer 2000, College of the Atlantic offered classes at Mount Desert Rock for the graduate courses Introduction to Biological Oceanography (Dr. S. Todd, COA), and Whales, dolphins and seals (Dr. G. Stone, NEAQ). In the same season, the college also provided the undergraduate class Field Studies in Marine Mammalogy (Dr. S. Todd, COA), and also hosted a class in Island Life (Dr. J. Anderson, COA). Plans to use Mount Desert Rock for classes in the undergraduate offering Introduction to Oceanography (Dr. S. Todd, COA) are ongoing.

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Marine Mammal Strandings


To report a marine mammal stranding please call:

Office 207-288-5644

Cell 207-266-1326

If You would like to Donate

Donations can be made to:
Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic
105 Eden Street
Bar Harbor, ME 04609


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