MOUNT DESERT ROCK — Four researchers stationed at the lighthouse on this remote treeless ledge 25 miles offshore were evacuated by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter Friday afternoon.
The researchers, including a College of the Atlantic student, were picked up as a precaution as predicted surf from an intense low pressure system approaching from the west – and the northward turn of Hurricane Joaquin farther south in the Atlantic – would preclude removal by the weekly supply boat from Bar Harbor.
In major storms, high seas wash completely over the top of the 3.5-acre island. Waves from Hurricane Bill in 2009 smashed into the keeper’s house, shattering a wall and destroying several outbuildings. Seas at that time were estimated at 24 feet.
The granite light tower, which has withstood numerous hurricanes over the decades, has managed to escape damage.
“I checked in with the Coast Guard on Friday to let them know we had people out there,” explained Toby Stephenson, captain of COA’s supply and research vessel The Osprey. “We didn’t want them to be surprised,” he added. “They were the ones to offer to go out there and pick them up.”
Stephenson continued that by Friday, the water was too rough for smaller craft, and forecasters estimated it would be at least Thursday of this week before there would be a safe pickup window.
While the granite tower would provide a good shelter in event of a major storm, having to retreat to it would be a last resort, Stephenson said.
According to Stephenson, Coast Guard officials dispatched an MH 60 Jayhawk helicopter from Cape Cod. It landed on Mount Desert Rock just two and a half hours after the decision to evacuate was made. “The Coast Guard said it would be a good emergency training mission for them,” Stephenson said.
The helicopter took student Anastasia Czarnecki and the three National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration researchers, two of whom are former COA students, to the airport in Trenton.
On Monday, the National Weather Service issued a high-surf warning for the entire Maine Coast as swells from Joaquin, by then far out to sea, were expected. Seas of up to 7-10 feet were predicted.
Mount Desert Rock serves as a research station for COA and Allied Whale. Students and faculty have been using the unique location to study whales, seabirds and other marine organisms for decades.
Stephenson said that continued high seas this week make scheduling a return trip to the island uncertain. “Seas like this are not all that unusual,” he said. “I’m not sure when we’ll be able to get back out there.”