The Coast Walk Project

Interview – Toby Stephenson, Captain of the Osprey, College of the Atlantic

I ran into Toby Stephenson one day at the College of the Atlantic as he docked the college’s research vessel, Osprey, and recruited him for the Coast Walk to talk about his job as captain of the vessel and manager of the college waterfront. We met up at Mount Dessert Bakery on December 5, 2017.

Jenn:      Well, like I said in my email, I’m asking people all over the island ‘What do you do and how did you end up doing it?’

Toby:      I got started as a student at the College of the Atlantic working with Allied Whale and got turned onto working on the water. I started working on the whale watch boats during the summer as crew, and I was also really interested in marine mammals and whales and biology. That’s basically it. I persisted at working with marine mammals and wanting to stay on the water – they finally hired me for the job.

Jenn:      What is it that you do? I know you’re the Osprey‘s captain.

Toby:      Yeah. I run the COA waterfront, which is the pier and the floats, the boats, and all of the flotsam and jetsam that go with it.

Jenn:      The sailing program?

Toby:      Yeah, sailing program, teaching students rowing, or motorboat operation, and keeping our equipment maintained, teaching navigation to students, and teaching them how to crew boats. It’s an informal teaching position. Rather than an intensive, short period of time, I get to do it over a long period of time with students that join our crew as work study. I teach them over several years how to drive the inflatables and have landings out on the islands, do general pier and boat maintenance down at the waterfront.

Jenn:      What a cool work study!

Toby:      Oh, yeah, it’s the best work study job at the college and my job is definitely the best job around! It’s fun. It’s always different. I drive out to the islands to bring food, supplies, people, equipment. We’ll take classes out and give them tours in the bay or take them wherever the instructor wants to go. We’ll do private charters, we’ve done weddings on the boat. We’ve done birthday parties, and a variety of trips like that, but we’ll also do research trips or recovery trips – University of Maine or some other research institution has a … Often they have these autonomous buoys, what they call Slocum gliders, or wave gliders.

Slocum glider image from:

They’re like the moon rover. It’s a remotely controlled device from a lab at University of Maine or Bigelow Labs and it’s propelled by the motion of the waves. They can see where it is on the chart, like a GPS, and they can give it a course and steer it. But, they can’t obviously see where it is or what it’s doing, only virtually. Every now and then [the gliders] fail. Something gets broken or they get caught up in something out there and [the lab] needs to recover it, so we’ll go out and recover [the glider] for them, or we’ll take [a glider] out to put them overboard and test them.

Jenn:      That’s so cool.

Toby:      Yeah, it’s so fun. We put hydrophones in the water that sink down to the bottom. They’ll stay down for the season and then at the end of the season we’ll go and recover them.

Hydrophone diagram from:

Jenn:      The hydrophone, is it listening or recording-

Toby:      Marine mammal calls. Yeah, these buoys sink down to the bottom and they drift suspended several feet off the bottom for the summer recording a tremendous amount of data. When they’re ready to be recovered, we’ll go out with a speaker that we put in the water. The speaker produces a sound sequence almost like a Morse code, and that tells the buoy to break its cable, and then it’ll float back up to the surface. We’ll go out there, listen to it, signal to it to begin the burn process, and when it floats up we’ll recover it.

Jenn:      That’s ingenious!

Toby:      Students get to observe it and they get to go out with the scientists and ask questions, so that part is really cool. We’ve gone out to record. We’ve gone out for senior projects. We’ve recovered different shark tags.

Jenn:      Was it you who towed the [dead] whale back a few years ago?

Toby:      Yeah, we’ll tow whales back if we have to.

Jenn:      It must have been a little smelly.

Bill Trotter, “College of the Atlantic students, staff dissect 50-foot sperm whale,”
Bangor Daily News, August 20, 2012

Toby:      We’ve done that a handful of times. A number of times actually we’ve towed whales with the Osprey. We also take the University of Maine tech crew out to the weather buoys and we’ll tie off to the buoy, and they’ll repair the buoys and work to upgrade them, and do some maintenance.

Jenn:      What do you do this time of year?

Toby:      I’m winding down.

Jenn:      Are the boats out of the water now?

Toby:      Yep. Right now I’m looking over my log book and seeing what we did for the college over the course of the year and how many students we took out, how many trips we ran, how many of them were for the islands, for courses, for private charters. I’m renewing the licenses for the registration for different devices on Osprey. We’ve got GPS devices that we need to renew.

Jenn:      You need a license for those?

Toby:      Well, they have to be registered so if something happens, they know where to find you.

Jenn:      Oh, so they can track the signal of that particular GPS?

Toby:      Yeah, it’s called an EPIRB, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. If we get in distress we can trip the EPIRB, or it’ll do it automatically if your equipment gets submerged. It’ll send out a distress signal to the coast guard and then it’ll also send coordinates with it and they’ll be able to determine where we are to send a search and rescue unit. But all of that stuff needs to be re-registered because they like to keep things updated.

Jenn:      I can see why. That sounds like something they’d like to keep tabs on.

Toby:      You paint the boat, or you change the number of passengers you’re allowed to have, or any adjustment to the safety equipment has to be recorded in that registration. When there are changes, you update it. I’m also winterizing our equipment, our engines, and-

Jenn:      What does that mean?

Toby:      Well, so the outboard engines … It’s like a house, like people’s camps for the winter, if you don’t do anything, the pipes will freeze and burst. Same thing, you have to winterize the engines because you’re not using them so they don’t get rusty on the inside. Any water that’s in them gets flushed out, and any fuel is also flushed out because fuel will go bad and can corrode things if it’s left because of the ethanol that’s in fuel. Everything needs to be covered. Plugs need to be taken out so if water does get in things, it goes out. For Osprey, I actually have to put antifreeze in the engine itself because it has what’s called a raw water intake. It’s part of the cooling – seawater goes into the engine and out the exhaust. I have to put coolant in the engine so the engine block doesn’t break. There’s all kinds of stuff – I go through equipment and take out stuff that needs to be replaced, so we go through flares and look over PFD’s and make orders for things in the spring. We have a weather satellite on the boat, a Sirius weather satellite. I need to stop our service, so we’re not paying for it through the winter. I have to provide annual reports for the season, and then I have to plan any repairs or maintenance projects that I want for the spring. We’re working on a windlass and an anchor for the bow. A windlass is a winch that pulls the anchor up off the bow. We don’t have one, so we’re installing one. … I got a new boat up and running this year. We re-powered it, a smaller research boat.

Jenn:      That must have been exciting.

Toby:      Yeah, it’s fun. It’s a nice little boat, but the engine was bad in it and it was an inboard engine. I took the engine out and we put a new outboard on it. We’re going to use that for a small aquaculture program that we’re going to begin.

Jenn:      No kidding! What are you growing?

Toby:      We’re probably going to have a kelp string and we’d like to have oysters and scallops. We’d like to grow anything of interest because one of the things we want to work with – Chris Peterson and Natalie Springuel are working with local aquaculture farmers. She works through the Sea Grant program, and Chris teaches [at COA], and he’s on the Frenchman Bay Partners. … I’ve heard interest from students so I want to make that a possibility for them.

Jenn:      That’s awesome. [Ed.note: Both Chris and Natalie have been part of the Coast Walk – see Chris’ field trip here and Natalie’s interview here.]

Toby:      We got this small boat and a student is going to take on the aquaculture permit as her senior project. She’s going to get the permit, or at least get us to the point where we can have the permitting. Then, we’re going to put some kelp strings out there, and try and grow various things, and then Chris will work it into his Marine Sciences curriculum somehow, but hopefully within a few years we’ll have stuff for them to look at and measure growth, measure toxicity, it could be anything. Looking at the environmental halos, because algae sequesters CO2. They can help to reduce the acidity in the water column. There’s been some evidence to show that because the rising acidity in the oceans can be detrimental to young spat in the formation of their shell [raising them] around kelp beds may be beneficial.

Jenn:      That’s a cool idea. Like symbiotic farming.

Toby:      It’s symbiotic farming, exactly. We want to play around with that and see how that works. We’ve expanded the sailing program. We’re looking into aquaculture, and [we’re busy] getting people out onto the islands themselves.

Jenn:      It sounds incredibly busy.

Toby:      It is all over the board, but yeah, but it’s fun. It’s good.

Jenn:      Are you part of Allied Whale, or are you strictly college?

Toby:      I’m strictly the college, but I was an Allied Whale student when I was a student at the college, so that was my work study.

Jenn:      Is Allied Whale a branch of the college?

Toby:      It’s a separate entity, but the College of the Atlantic holds the permits. In order to [collect] marine mammal parts, you have to be approved by NOAA, and you have to be either a non-profit conducting research, or you have to be a museum, or you have to be an educational facility. We’re all three; we have a permit to have all of [our] marine mammals material. We also have the humpback whale catalog.

Jenn:      That’s what, the tail fins?

Toby:      Yeah, the flukes. Back in the 70’s, when Steve Katona was teaching marine sciences at the college, he, with a handful of students, started looking at whales. It was right around the Marine Mammal Protection act and the boycott because the Russians and Japanese were still hunting whales. The Americans were [hunting whales] up until 1972. Most of it then was happening down in the Antarctic. [The COA people] were studying the whales and they noticed that you could tell them apart by the flukes. They began collecting photographs around Mount Desert Rock. Citizens used to go out and stay at the station during the summer and take photographs [from the top of the tower.] It was a big community event. Then [the researchers] took those photographs down to the Caribbean and started photographing whales down there and started comparing them, and then they found matches.  We’ve got over 7,000 individual humpback whales recorded in our North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog, which is curated at Allied Whale.

Jenn:      That’s amazing.

Toby:      Steve and the students started this Allied Whale group back in the 70’s out of the college, but it is somewhat independent because they do a lot of their own fundraising. It’s a project in the college.

Jenn:      So the college is the umbrella?

Toby:      Yeah, exactly.

Jenn:      Nice. There’s so much going on over there! I’m always thinking, damn, I wish I was a student again. I would totally be in Natalie’s class.

Toby:      Oh, yeah. I know, I would have too. When I was a student, I took on the field stuff and I enjoyed it. It was essentially a pretty monumental study showing the seasonal movements of whales and that they actually had these migratory routes, and because you were able to identify individuals, you were able to start counting them. Those were two essential things, but the third and most important part of that whole, their study with photographic identification, was that it was non-invasive. You weren’t darting them, which is the way they used to do it. They’d shoot a dart into the whale, and when the whale was hunted years later, you’d come across the dart and it had a number on it that worked like a bird band, except it was lethal. This is non-invasive research … It got a lot of attention. One of my objectives when I took this job was to put ‘Atlantic’ back into the ‘College of the Atlantic’ because there was this period of time where … Well, nobody regretted Allied Whale and the work that was done, but all of a sudden, the College of the Atlantic became “that whale school.” Human Ecology isn’t about whales. Human Ecology is about human ecology. Whales could be a part of that, but so could this can of San Pellegrino, depending on how you look at it, and how you monitor it.

Jenn:      You guys got a little typecast?

Toby:      It did. The college started to get typecast, so there was an effort, I think, to disassociate, ‘We’re not just that whale school. We do other things. We do art, we do writing, we do history, we do science and math, etc. It’s bigger than whales.’ When I was a student, the waterfront was there, but there wasn’t much going on. But, then we were given the Indigo. Moe Brown was faculty at the time.

Jenn:      What is the Indigo?

Toby:      The Indigo was our first … Well, it wasn’t the college’s first research boat, but it was the first substantial research boat that you could actually sleep on. You could take it out for long distance trips. It wasn’t a great boat. In fact, it was a pretty rotten boat. But it was free. That began a little bit more of the activities down at the waterfront. I worked on the Indigo when I was a student when they hired their very first full time captain. I became good friends with Captain Andrew, but then I moved on to different things, and came back and was there for the last year of the Indigo. But, at the time, there really wasn’t a whole lot around the waterfront. It wasn’t really that active.

Jenn:      About what time did you come back?

Toby:      I started in 2011. I just finished my seventh year. I’ve just been trying to expand the waterfront. We got new docks. We expanded the docks a bit. We’ve added boats and I’m doing more proactive training with students to use boats to go down there and have access to boats.

Jenn:      It’s a really useful skill.

Toby:      I’m trying to make it more experiential for the students.

Jenn:      How many students do you work with, like work study and teaching?

Toby:      I usually have about, over the course of a year, anywhere from four to six students that work on Osprey with me. I’ll be expanding that a little bit this year so we can have some sailing crew as well. But there’s always a bunch of other students that either want to do independent studies or just need to get on the water somehow, so I keep in touch with them about when we have trips, and when it’s appropriate to go, and not appropriate to go and so on. Maybe half a dozen to a dozen students throughout the year getting special attention on the boat.

Jenn:      That’s cool.

Toby:      Yeah, it’s not a huge number, but it’s growing. The waterfront’s definitely increased. I’ve added a number of moorings and I’m opening it up for alums to be able to keep their boats there.

Jenn:      Nice.

Toby:      So they come down to the waterfront and use it more with the hope that they take students [out]. More students on the water-

Jenn:      Yeah, build that alumni network.

Toby:      Well, yeah, there’s that too. … A very direct and specific request when I was hired was to get control of the waterfront.

Jenn:      Oh, people just informally … ?

Toby:      Yeah. There were moorings out there, but nobody knew who owned what. Some people would sublease moorings. I had one guy who was running private tours off the dock.

Jenn:      Completely unaffiliated?

Toby:      Oh, completely unaffiliated and illegal, taking people out for money without a license or anything.

Jenn:      Oh, wow. What did you do?

Toby:      I had to confront them and say, “You can’t run your tours from our dock. It’s a private dock.” All sorts of people would sail up and jump on his boat … so there were a lot of people just coming up and using the property, which I personally don’t have a problem with unless they’re smoking and making people uncomfortable by a perpetual presence.

Jenn:      But it also puts you guys up to liability.

Toby:      There’s that. There’s definitely that. I don’t know that we could ever police it to the point where you eliminate that, but this was getting out of control. People would show up and use moorings and there were all these expenses which the college was having to shoulder. Now, people that have moorings have to pay for them. There’s an annual fee so we have some revenue to help out because we have to replace the pier, or repair the pier, soon. It’s going to be six figures. But, at any rate, at least there’ll be some sort of a fee structure –

Jenn:      That seems fair.

Toby:      Yeah, it’s unreasonable for the college just to be there as a [resource] … I always want people to feel welcome. I just want them to also respect the facility and part of that is ownership and you get there by charging.

Jenn:      Well, I know a lot of people in the community … It’s not like we feel like COA is public, but speaking for myself I always feel welcome going on campus and I know a lot of us like to go down to that little beach. It’s the only place that I find those little graphite pebbles. It’s naturally occurring. It just washes up. When my kids were little, I would take them there and we would draw happy faces on all the little round beach stones and leave them. I never heard if anyone ever found them. We’d draw like a hundred little happy faces.

Toby:      How sweet. That’s funny. Yeah, the beach was strewn with boats and kayaks and stuff. At high tide, that’s a small beach. It’s the size of this room. There’s not a lot left. We expanded the docks a little bit. I don’t let people keep boats on the beach so it’s open for Summer Field Studies to go down there and spread out or just people to go down and show up and lay in the sun.

Jenn:      I’m one of them! [Ed note: Although I’m beachcombing, not lying in the sun.] The kayaks that are down there, are those the college’s kayaks?

Toby:      Yeah, that is a tricky situation. Everybody wants to go kayaking, but … It’s much easier to feel comfortable in grabbing a kayak [without] knowing anything about it than it is to grab a motorboat without knowing anything about it. If there’s a motorboat, a rowboat, or a kayak, people will grab the kayak. Because they can pick it up. They’ve seen people paddle. That’s pretty intuitive. ‘Oh, yeah, I know what to do with the paddle.’

Jenn:      It’s a lot easier to paddle a kayak than to row a dory, for sure.

Toby:      Yeah, exactly. They’re way more inclined to grab something like that and head out in the water and get in trouble than they are anything else. The kayaks have to be locked. But the rowboats, I try to keep available for students. My policy down there is… I try to be very democratic about stuff. I just say here are the ground rules. If you wear your PFD, make sure somebody knows that you’re going out, and they know when you’re coming back, and you don’t go in X conditions, then the boat is there, the PFD’s are there, and have fun. I don’t even need to know about it just as long as you’re doing it this way. It’s a lot more freedom if you are restricted through rules or regulation than if we didn’t have any and everything had to be under lock and key. I find I can give students a lot more freedom if they respect the ground rules.

Jenn:      Are they pretty good about that?

Toby:      Yeah, they are. On occasion there are problems and I will get loud about it, and angry about it.

Jenn:      I remember doing some dumb-ass stuff when I was in college.

Toby:      I did too, and I struggle with it because you are who you are because of that. You’re walking around the island right now going to all these places along the littoral zone of the island exploring things in part because you went through the experiences you went through. They helped shape you. I don’t want to clip anybody’s wings, but my rationale is I want to show you the right way to do something, and then I’m going to let you do it the way you want. But, you have to learn the right way first. It’s something I constantly struggle with. I remember my first year I was working in the Davis garage where I keep all of our equipment and I had the garage door open, and I went into town to go to Paradis to get something and I was gone for 20 minutes, or 25 minutes, something like that. I came back, and I got out of my vehicle, and I started working. A few minutes later, two students came up with a pair of oars in their hands. They weren’t oars, they were wooden kayak paddles that were detachable in the middle, right? They were the breakdown paddles, and they put them back. I said, “Hey, what are you guys doing?” They go, “Oh, we were going to go for a row and decided not to. It was too rough.” There was a dory on the beach, this big fiberglass dory that weighs about 250 pounds.

Jenn:      They were going to row it with half a kayak paddle?

Toby:      Well, it gets better than that. They were going to row it with these old wooden kayak paddles, and the wind was really strong out of the West. The beach was flat calm, but 200 to 300 yards out you were in three foot seas or more, and the wind was taking you further into Frenchman Bay. Just a couple years before that, there was a young married couple at Lamoine and the husband got on one of those sit-upon kayaks … He had a PFD I think, but he didn’t have a [wetsuit]… he had a t-shirt and shorts. It was flat calm, but he was in the shadow of the wind, and it was beautiful, and then it shifted a little bit and dropped and he got carried out in Frenchman Bay, and that was that.

Jenn:      That is so sad.

Toby:      Yeah, it was heartbreaking. Then, these students just like – Aah! If we’re not explicit over and over again about stuff –

Jenn:      The ocean will kill you if it can.

Toby:      It’ll kill you, yeah. It won’t feel bad about it. That really jarred me … But at the same time I didn’t want to keep everything under lock and key because I appreciate risk and autonomy and responsibility. I want students to be able to have that, but-  There’s always things like that where students will grab canoes and go out to Bar Island and then get stuck out there. Not that often, but it happens every few years. The last time it happened, they took a boat without permission. There were three students, but they all had PFD’s, and they got out to Bar Island and they couldn’t get back. It was too rough. They made a phone call and they got rescued by I think the Harbormaster. Those are the stories where you want to … When they come back, you want to pat them on the back, give them a hug, and tell them ‘Good job. I know you were an asshole for taking this equipment without asking, and you were stupid for doing it when you did it, but you were smart enough to recognize when it got too dangerous, and you didn’t let your pride get in your way.

Jenn:      Yes, ‘thank you for not dying.’

Toby:      ‘Thank you for having humility and not making it worse.’ But, at least hopefully when they do things like that, they’ll have a PFD like that kid or they’ll have sense enough to know ‘This might kill us. Let’s not go there.’ That is one of my big cruxes, and we’ve had this discussion with our islands crew about how do you let family know that we have these resources and we’re going to teach your students to take risks and it’s going to be dangerous, but it’s worth it even though you might get the short straw? Over the course of a hundred years, you may be the one that draws the short straw. We almost need to in a very upfront way just state it. This is what we’re doing. It’s risky, it’s dangerous. If you’re not comfortable with it, then don’t do it. But, if you are-

Jenn:      Well then frankly, statistically, driving is probably a higher risk. The way I see it, it’s all about learning what the parameters are, how strong you are, and what causes the danger and how to manage it.

Toby:      Right. Now, quite frankly, every generation learns from the previous generation. But, they also lose something when they do that. I know our kids are a lot smarter. We get smarter, but the one thing I notice that they don’t have are coping skills, and they come with this profound sense of entitlement. I think I had it. Every generation just steps it up another rung.

Jenn:      Yeah, I think that might be something about those college-age years. You haven’t discovered yet that you’re mortal. Most college kids, at least the people I knew, had hardly been hurt ever. Maybe we broke our arm or something, but-

Toby:      What we can do is try and give them more real world experiences. It’s hard to do it in a course. It’s hard to do it in 10 weeks, but if there are aspects to the college, programs, or learning trajectories that transcend the term, like the work study position on the boat – here I’m going to toot my horn – students have to learn how to do safety drills and inspections on the boat and they work with me for a few years, they’ll know how boats are supposed to be kept. They’ve learned how to drive inflatables in dangerous situations, and they get jobs down the Antarctic, or in the Arctic, or I’ve got a student now who’s out on the Mariana Islands studying crows.

Jenn:      Oh, cool. Wow.

Toby:      Right? They’re cool people that have learned some really good skills that were applicable to jobs. It’s really useful stuff. I’ve had three students, three of my crew that have gone down to the Antarctic and worked on ships, and they get really good ratings. They get rehired. I’ve had some that have gone up to Alaska to work on ships, and this one student who’s down on the Mariana Islands … She was one out of 1,200 applicants for the job.

Jenn:      Wow. That’s so cool.

Toby:      Yeah, it’s awesome. Back to the leaning aspect of it, and the waterfront skills and the boating skills, … any adventure-type learning you can get it with, but the thing about boats, is that … If you learn rock climbing, that’s awesome. I used to do it. But, it’s hard to have rock climbing skills, and then get a job outside of the rock climbing world, or outside of the guiding world. But with boats you can get a job at US Fish and Wildlife. You can get a job on a tour boat. You can get a job at a research station. That type of experience has a broader reach. But all of that stuff helps make you a better person, I think. My hope is that we integrate a lot of the job experiences and work experiences into the curriculum as well. The aquaculture would be another example of that,

Jenn:      I’m so excited about that.

Toby:      Yeah, getting familiar with the equipment and going out and doing the husbandry and everything of the stewardship of your crop.

Jenn:      Are you going to do that right off of the college there?

Toby:      I’m hoping to do it right off the college.

Jenn:      That’d be awesome because then the rest of the kids who aren’t in the program can see, or at least be aware of it.

And right about then we looked at the time and realized we both had to run off to work. Thanks so much for chatting, Toby!


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