Perhaps no geographic feature has been more pivotal to this island’s history than the Great Harbor of Mount Desert.
Delineated by Eastern Way, Western Way and the mouth of Somes Sound, the Great Harbor literally is a crossroads of maritime interests and a contemporary interface with the waves of history that created the greater island community we enjoy today.
It is only from the vantage of its center that the names of Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor make cartographic sense.
Before European settlement, the great Wabanaki Chief Asticou looked out across the Great Harbor from his encampment at what is now Manchester Point in Northeast Harbor. It was none other than the great French explorer Samuel de Champlain who in 1604 sailed upon its waters and named the island “Isle des Monts Deserts,” literally, island of barren mountains.
The first attempt at settlement by Europeans, the ill-fated Jesuit colony, was established on the shores of the Great Harbor near the mouth of Somes Sound at Fernald Point in Southwest Harbor.
In September of 1762, Gov. Sir Frances Bernard dropped anchor in the Great Harbor and proudly took in the view of his new possession. Later in the 1800s, as Hudson River School artists such as Frederic Church and Thomas Cole inspired widespread interest in MDI, Fitz Henry Lane, a contemporary, crafted a spectacular painting looking north across the Great Harbor from the Manset shore.
And finally, it was at his summer cottage in Northeast Harbor, looking out across the Great Harbor, that Harvard President Charles Eliot called together a group of influential summer residents to create the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, the organization that would lead to the creation of Acadia National Park.
Currently, the Great Harbor is abuzz with maritime activity. Southwest Harbor, home to a major U.S. Coast Guard base, Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor all are important fishing ports. The number of lobster buoys provides ample evidence of the harbor’s rich fishing potential.
Two ferry services, water taxis and numerous private vessels ply the waters between Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles, themselves bustling fishing ports. Scores of private recreational sail and power vessels, sea kayaks and boats from multiple local sailing schools call the Great Harbor home. And area yacht clubs and boating societies regularly hold regattas, races and parades within the relative safe confines of our Great Harbor.
It is in this context that the announcement that a cruise line wants to begin anchoring its ocean-going passenger vessel in the Great Harbor and tendering people ashore in Southwest Harbor has raised so much alarm.
Bar Harbor already plays host to more than 140 cruise ships a year. News that similar operations might spread to less touristy parts of MDI is distressing to many. While an additional proposed visit to Northeast Harbor was scuttled last year when municipal officials nixed the use of the town dock, there is no law in Maine that precludes tenders from using private facilities.
The prospect of ships anchoring on MDI’s much-ballyhooed “quiet” side, only to whisk away the visitors to Bar Harbor, seems grossly unfair.
It is a blatant attempt to make an end run around the cruise ship cap in Bar Harbor.
Currently, Bar Harbor is making plans to manage cruise ship visitation there in a forthright and thoughtful way with the creation of a terminal at the former international ferry facility.
As that effort proceeds, any discussion of what is an appropriate level of cruise ship visitation for the entire island – and Acadia – will be moot if even more ships begin calling at other ports. It holds open the prospect of unfettered and destructive visitation levels.
Even small cruise ships at anchor can “sweep” in circles as much as 1,000 feet in diameter. The loss of fishing gear, both at anchorage and during large vessel transits, would be incalculable.
While there is no state law prohibiting cruise ships from dropping anchor in the Great Harbor of Mount Desert, perhaps there should be. Those waters are no less a vital part of our heritage, our community identity, or our natural and irreplaceable resources than are the mountains, forests, lakes, shores and islands of Acadia National Park.
Cars and other motor vehicles are not allowed to go everywhere they want in Acadia. Some lakes and ponds are limited to use by boats with small motors only. And on most local freshwater bodies, jet skis are banned. Why not have the state legislature declare the Great Harbor of Mount Desert as a “small vessel sanctuary” and prohibit vessels larger than 200 feet from anchoring there?
The time appears to have come to establish limits on where cruise ships can go before a vital part of this island’s heritage and quality of life is spoiled forever.