TWO HOURS and 22 miles out from Northeast Harbor, we're approaching Mount Desert Rock, the farthest offshore of Maine's 2,500-plus islands. When the 45-foot boat Seal comes close to the three-acre rock, 80 or 90 real seals sit up and take notice. The seals have had this barren place to themselves for the last eight months. They slide quickly into the water and watch curiously as the boat is anchored offshore.
It's opening day at Mount Desert Rock, home each June through September to biologists from Allied Whale, a group associated with the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.
With the permission of the United States Coast Guard, whale observers have come out to this remote island every summer for the last 16 years, making it the oldest land-based marine mammal research facility on the East Coast.
Founded in 1972 by students and staff associated with the College of the Atlantic (COA), Allied Whale has helped pioneer the development and use of techniques used in the photo identification of individual whales. Workers at the Rock also carry out projects such as respiration studies.
The group's offices in Bar Harbor maintain several whale catalogs: North Atlantic humpbacks - 3,800 entries, North Atlantic finbacks - 200 entries, and Antarctic humpbacks - 35.
``The Rock's unlike any place else on the East Coast, an excellent spot for undisturbed behavior studies of marine mammals,'' says Bob Bowman, a COA research associate. ``When we put a boat in the water, a whale will know about the boat long before the boat can see the whale. But the island's been there forever, and people up in the lighthouse tower won't bother the whales.''
Mr. Bowman has been running Maine Whalewatch tours since 1976 as a way to support the Mount Desert Rock project. While taking paying passengers out from Northeast Harbor on daily nine-hour whale and sea-bird cruises, Bowman also provides logistical support for the Rock, no small task when all provisions must be delivered.
On its initial trip, the Seal is packed full with essentials not found on the island - fresh water, firewood, food - as well as other necessary items, like a computer for data collection, field guides and other books, binoculars, spotting scopes, and recorders both scientific and musical.
Everything is transferred to the island in the project's 14-foot Zodiac inflatable boat. During the summer it is used primarily for close-up whale photography.
Weather permitting, each daily whale watch runs in two-hour shifts from sunrise to sunset. Atop the 75-foot lighthouse tower on the Rock, an observer can see about 10 miles. From the Zodiac, low on the water, visibility is limited to a mile. ``You're blind, but you're mobile,'' researcher Tim Cole says. ``It's fun directing the boat from the tower, kind of like a video game.''
``Sometimes the tower will send the Zodiac one way and my boat the other way,'' Bowman says. ``Our goal is to get clear photographs of every whale every day.''
Last year the team at the Rock included a total of 33 volunteers who paid $200 a week to share the isolated life. Some return year after year.
The remoteness of the Rock, which makes supply lines so difficult, makes the island an attractive place for scientific observation. It lies isolated on the 50-fathom contour, where strong tides, shoals, and clear, deep water combine to produce an upwelling rich in nutrients. This mixture attracts the entire ocean food chain from zooplankton to the finback whale.
At 60 to 80 feet long - second-largest animal in the world - the finback holds a special fascination for researchers at the Rock. ``Very little is known about finbacks,'' says Harriet Corbett, the project director. ``They're fast, they're elusive, and they spend very little time at the surface, compared with right whales or humpbacks.''
The first match of a migrating humpback whale was made at Mount Desert Rock in 1976, when workers identified an animal that had been photographed two months earlier swimming off Bermuda.
``Questions we have about finback breeding and calving locations, though, remain unanswered,'' says Allied Whale's Kim Robertson, who recently published a study detailing 19 years of finback sightings from Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, to Cape Hatteras, N.C. ``To my knowledge, no one in the winter has ever seen a finback we've identified at the Rock,'' she says.
Whales become known, and sometimes named, for distinctive color patterns or scars. At least 82 finbacks visited the Rock last summer, including 33 already named by Allied Whale.
To aid this research, some three dozen finback whales, special favorites who return to the area year after year, have been included in a unique ``adoption'' program. For $30 (or $50 for a mother/calf pair), the human ``parent'' receives a photograph of his or her whale, a history of its appearances in the area, and information about finback research. Finbacks available for adoption include Raggedy, Blunt, Dent, Spike, Tunic, Chip, Chuck, Hurricane, and Scarlip O'Hara.
``Individual identification over time has begun to give us an insight into how long finbacks reside near the Rock,'' says director Corbett. ``These whales were once thought to be transients just passing through the area.''
After years of experience, however, the researchers now more easily identify individual finbacks. ``We've learned that some whales stay nearby for as long as five to eight weeks,'' Corbett says. ``Other finbacks visit the Rock early in the summer, then leave, but return at a later date. It's also interesting to see various patterns of association between individuals, as we watch the same whales arrive or leave together.
``Although the finback is listed as an endangered species in the US,'' Corbett says, ``they are still being hunted in the North Atlantic Ocean. We're hoping that our research at the Rock will help answer the many questions scientists have concerning finback site tenacity, migration, calving, mating, social behavior, and population biology.''
In addition to the satisfactions of scientific research, life on the Rock offers many pleasures for its summer inhabitants. ``I like to get up into the [lighthouse] tower maybe a half-hour before sunrise,'' Mr. Cole says. ``As the sky lightens, things gradually start to happen - more birds fly by, or a few whales become visible. You can sit and watch as the world starts to move.''
For information about volunteering or adopting a finback, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Allied Whale c/o College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME 04609.