“I’ll drop the anchor, you get the boat,” Captain Toby Stephenson instructs his deckhand Matt Messina in the stern.
Messina, 20, calls for three people to help push the inflatable outboard into the chilly Atlantic from College of the Atlantic’s research vessel, Osprey. Donning life jackets, passengers prepare to disembark from the 46-foot research vessel.
After the inflatable slides off the open transom, the Osprey’s passengers pile in and motor to a small outcropping known as a “pupping ledge.” The area is typically where seals will nurse and care for their young.
With no seals in sight, Stephenson permits the five students and their teacher to scramble ashore.
Christoph Richter, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto, teaches a summer course for College of the Atlantic titled “A View from Mount Desert Rock: Studying Whales and Seals in Their Natural Habitat.”
One of the participants in the class was 54-year-old Shirley Ailes of Deltona, Fla. Wearing gold fin tail earrings and a matching necklace, the retired chemist said she has always wanted to know more about marine mammals.
“I’m trying to be a kid again,” she declares.
Climbing over barnacle-encrusted rocks, some of the class participants, Richter, Stephenson and Messina discuss crustaceans such as the green crab — an invasive species currently threatening the shellfish fishery in Maine.
Stephenson takes in the beautiful day as sunlight bounces off the white fiberglass vessel, bobbing in 5-foot sea swells.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” he said, referring to the Osprey.
As part of a partnership between College of the Atlantic’s marine mammal research arm, Allied Whale and the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., Stephenson leads what he calls “old school whale watches” from the College of the Atlantic’s pier in Bar Harbor. The cruises run twice a week, once a day.
“I always refer to it as the ‘old school whale watching,’ where we go back, you know the way it used to be done and take our time,” Stephenson said. “We’re fair-weather mariners about it. We have a nice ride out, we stop for things on the way, and then we spend two to three hours with animals offshore, whatever happens to be there, we stop. We drift and take our time. There is not a really tight schedule.”
Originally from Wilton, Conn., Stephenson came to Maine in 1989 to apprentice in a small boat-building shop, The Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Pemaquid. There, he learned the meaning of community and serving others. He then went on to work as an educator and wilderness trip leader for the Chewonki Foundation, a Wiscasset-based environmental education organization, which seeks to instill an appreciation of the natural world in youth.
In 1998, Stephenson graduated from College of the Atlantic after a three-year work study with Allied Whale and earning a certification in secondary science education with a focus in marine biology.
“As an educator in natural history, COA and the teacher certification being offered was a no-brainer, but I knew teaching in a classroom was not for me,” Stephenson said. “Instead I chose to teach the public as a naturalist on whale watch boats during the summer, where I also honed my skills in small-passenger vessel operations and eventually acquired my captain’s license.”
In 2003, along with other Allied Whale staffers, Stephenson reopened and became the museum director for the Bar Harbor Whale Museum (which is currently closed). He served in that role until 2010.
Finally, in 2011 Stephenson took over as captain of College of the Atlantic’s research vessel, the Osprey. Since then, the custom-made WESMAC boat has served as his classroom and often carries supplies and equipment out to researchers on Great Duck Island and Mount Desert Rock.
Stephenson’s old school whale watches are limited to about 18 to 20 passengers, giving the excursion an intimate feel.
“Because there are fewer numbers, there’s usually more flexibility when we get home,” Stephenson said. “If people need to get back because they’ve got an appointment, we keep our schedule, but if we can stay longer because things all the sudden start getting exciting, we have the flexibility to do that.”
The whale watches typically go 25 to 30 miles off shore. They usually take passengers from Bar Harbor to the vicinity of Great Wass Island and then south/southeast over to Mount Desert Rock.
If a whale is spotted on the whale watch, the mammal often turns out to be a humpback or finback whale. Occasionally, they will see minke whales or an Atlantic white-sided dolphin.
“We’re always looking for other species that come into the Gulf of Maine, pilot whales or right whales or say whales or sperm whales,” Stephenson said. “But typically it’s the standard humpback, finback or minke whale.”
Stephenson is a firm believer in ethical whale watching, a practice that he says most Maine outfitters do a good job at.
“Enjoy things from a distance; you don’t have to be on top of them to see them,” he says. “You can get as much from a short distance and in many cases more because you are not disrupting them and there are better chances that they are conducting in interesting activities like feeding or breaching.”
Allied Whale played a crucial role in the development of photo identification of North Atlantic Humpback Whales. In 1976, the first North Atlantic Whale Catalog was published and today more than 6,000 individual humpback whales have been identified in it. The catalog provided researchers with the information they need to pinpoint where humpback whales winter in the Caribbean after feeding in northern waters during the summer.