Digest>Archives> May 2000

Former Island Light Station Now a Whale Resource Post

By Jim Merkel


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On a tiny rocky island where lightkeepers served for nearly 150 years, researchers are learning more about whales, and the rough life that keepers endured.

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More than 20 miles south of Mount Desert Island in Maine, keepers maintained a lonely watch from 1930 to the late 1970s at the Mount Desert Rock Light. Since the light was automated in 1977, the only ones to visit are Coast Guardsmen checking the automated equipment and researchers and students from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine keeping watch on the whales that congregate nearby.

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Even with modern conveniences, conditions are rough for those who come to Mount Desert Rock. Sean Todd, who's in charge of the College of the Atlantic marine mammal research station on Mount Desert Rock, said it gives a taste of the life keepers at Mount Desert Rock had.

"My impression is they must have been one tough breed," said Todd, who directs the College of the Atlantic marine mammal research group called Allied Whale. "When you're out there, it's good conditions in the sense you have a roof over your head. Other than that, then, everything else you really have to work very hard for."

In a description of a field course taught on the island, Todd says he includes a warning that in effect says, "This is not for the faint of heart."

"We have to bring all of our fresh water to the island with us. It can be very very cold, very wet, very windy. It can be quite an unpleasant place to be, sometimes,"

Todd said. "Our sanitary facilities are pretty makeshift too." Since the island is solid rock, those on the island must get by with an outhouse they have to empty.

"It's a pretty hardy existence," Todd said. "We've become so used to the modern amenities, it's very easy to forget exactly what these people may have gone through. Maybe it's time we remembered that, I think. It makes you much more aware of what you have now, and much more grateful for it."

The college has used the island for research since the 1970s, and acquired it from the Coast Guard in the late 1990s.

"The Rock, as it is called, has proven to be an ideal research platform from which to conduct studies of the behavior and ecology of fin and humpback whales," said a news release issued by the College of the Atlantic. "Perched atop the light house tower, researchers can monitor whales for over 10 miles distance, observing individuals for long periods of time in their natural environment."

The college is seeking money both for the research station and the preservation of the historic buildings of the light station.

"The tower itself to me appears to be in very good condition, which wouldn't be difficult because it's made of solid stone," Todd said. "It's extremely sturdily built. If ever there were a storm on the island, that's exactly where I would hide. It's a very safe building."

However, the lightkeeper's house, the generator shed and the boathouse are not in the best shape, Todd said. He said the rough conditions on the island would make any building suffer worse than it would on the shore.

"We have problems of corrosion," Todd said. "Even the best roof fixed on that house will probably only last five years, anyway. The house has to be really painted on an annual basis. There are various places where water gets in and causes the house not to be airtight," he said. "If it were left, yes it would be endangered."

Whatever shape the buildings are in, the public doesn't have much chance to visit them.

"The only people who come on shore are the researchers from the college and also the occasional Coast Guard team to maintain the light," Todd said. Tourists who come out on boats to look at whales around the island also can see the light station.

One exception may come soon. Todd said a woman who lived on the island in the 1930s would be coming to the area this summer. "One of the things she wants to do is maybe visit the Rock. So we're trying to see whether we can organize that for them," he said.

Making any visit more difficult is the way people coming by boat get on the island, by a ramp, during favorable conditions.

The method hasn't changed since Bill Andrews of St. Louis served at the Coast Guard light station on the Rock in the 1950s. Then, as now, people used a boat called a pea pod.

"They range all the way from 12 to 19 feet," said Electrician's Mate 1st Class Dario del Castillo, a lighthouse technician at the Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation team at Southwest Harbor, Maine.

"It's just a big wooden boat, looks just like a pea pod. You can fit about three or four people inside of it. The more weight actually the better. You just have somebody rowing right in."

Del Castillo said a Coast Guard team visits the island about once every three months to check on the automated equipment. Solar panels charge a bank of batteries that operate the light, the continuous foghorn and the monitoring equipment for it. "It relays back by radio modem to a computer terminal we have here, that tells us exactly what the lighthouse is doing," he said.

After visiting the island, del Castillo said, "It would have been pretty interesting being out there, just simply because of the fact that there's nothing but rock out on (what) it all sits on. It's nothing but sort of granite rock that it sits on. Judging from that, it would have been kind of hard not to see trees and things."

Such a place makes for stories as good as any told about lighthouses. One Todd heard was about a son of the Mount Desert Rock keeper who courted a daughter of the keeper on Great Duck Island, about 15 nautical miles away.

"He used to row a small boat back and forth in pursuit of courting this lady," Todd said. "I don't know whether that's myth or not, but it seems to be a fairly well established myth. There's all kinds of little folklore out there."

This story appeared in the May 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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