This is about how a small group of people has changed the way we look at some of the largest creatures in the world. Their base is Maine’s Mount Desert Rock, an island of three to four acres, depending on the tides. It’s a speck in the vast Atlantic, 23 miles from land.
Since 1973, the students, faculty, and staff of Allied Whale — the marine mammal research arm of the College of the Atlantic — have watched the ocean from their station on the Rock, looking for whales. From perches in a lighthouse, from boats, and from shore, their task has been as simple and as complex as this: watch, photograph, study, reach conclusions.
Through Allied Whale’s examination of thousands of photos taken by whale watchers and scientists throughout the Atlantic, patterns have emerged. Individual whales can be identified. Fin shapes can be distinguished; each whale’s massive flukes bear unique markings. It is as close as science can come to taking fingerprints. Once researchers can tell one whale from another, they can piece together migration patterns, food habits, mortality rates. With this knowledge, whales have become better protected. It has been more than three decades of intense work, and it began in one of the littlest colleges in America.
The College of the Atlantic boasts a student body of about 275, give or take a few who venture off each year to Antarctica or some other wild place. Set in Bar Harbor, the college attracts students who want to major in human ecology — which, for the most part, means they want to work outdoors and make a difference. Steve Katona, who retired in June as president after 34 years of teaching and administration, mined the enthusiasm of his students, who jumped at the chance to live the same spartan life as the early lighthouse keepers while doing groundbreaking research.
The first match of a migrating humpback with its photo happened 30 years ago here, and the process has never stopped. Whatever we learn about these creatures in the decades ahead will owe a debt to a tiny college, a tiny island, and the endless hours of watching.