Radio Field Trip: Learning About Marine Research on Appledore Island

Jul 25, 2018

For this week’s Radio Field Trip, we’re heading off the mainland and into the Gulf of Maine.

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 (Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)

As I step onto Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals, I’m surrounded. Seagulls are everywhere.

“As we walk around the island today, you’ll see this is a gull colony, which is an amazing resource as an educator and researcher,” Jennifer Seavey, executive director of the Shoals Marine Lab says.

Rick Ganley inspects the sea marine research center on Appledore Island.
Credit Mary McIntyre / NHPR

The Shoals Marine Lab is a research facility run by UNH and Cornell University that’s located on the island. It hosts undergraduate programs for college students from all over the world.

“This place is pretty legendary for turning out marine scientists, because they come here as undergraduates,” Jennifer says. “We’re reaching them at a really pivotal time in their career [when] they’re deciding what they want to do and what they want to focus on. So this is our island classroom if you will.”

Every summer, the island becomes home to dozens of these students as well as hundreds of seagulls that migrate to Appledore to breed and nest.

Some of the bird life on the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire.
Credit Mary McIntyre / NHPR

Clusters of furry, gray chicks scuttle along the trails as Jennifer leads me across the island.

“They are the ambassadors if you will of the lab,” Jennifer says. “They are the main noise that you hear out here 24 hours a day.”

She says the gulls will make noise all through the night, which can be something for newcomers to get used to. But Jennifer’s learned to tune them out.

“I don’t even hear them anymore unless there’s a particular ruckus,” she says.

Life on Appledore revolves around these seabirds, especially the marine research.

Intern Hyejoo Ro is conducting research in one of the many labs on the island.

“Parasite ecology is really great here because of all the gulls believe it or not,” Hyejoo says. “So the gulls, when they’re flying around, pooping, they’re introducing these parasites to the environment.”

Hyejoo is overseeing a large tank that takes up half the room. It’s filled with hundreds of infected crustaceans.

She’s a student at the University of Washington, and she’s spending her summer researching how these parasites affect the behavior of green crabs.

“It's an unconventional summer,” Hyejoo says. “I’d much rather be getting my hands on in the lab, or be outside collecting in the intertidal instead of a cubicle.”

Students collect all kinds of specimens from the shore. Jennifer takes me to another lab on the island with tanks that are filled with starfish, oysters, clams and more.

“This is a cool thing,” Jennifer says. “This is a moon snail.”

She carefully picks up the snail from the tank. It’s so large she had to hold it with both hands. The shell is smooth and shiny.

Rick Ganley needs both hands to examine this marine specimen.
Credit Mary McIntyre / NHPR

“You should put it in your hand because it has the coolest feeling,” Jennifer says.

She gently places the snail in my open palm. It feels very slippery as it attaches itself to my hand.

The lab does offer public programs for adults and families.

This includes walking tours and lessons on the island’s history. In the late 1800s, Appledore was home to a resort and famous poet Celia Thaxter.

The Shoals Marine Lab reconstructed and maintains a replica of Thaxter’s garden where she hosted several prominent writers and artists of the time.

Marie Nickerson is the steward of the garden. Flowers of all different colors fill its beds. My favorites are the yellow hollyhocks towering feet above me.

“How many people get to work within 250 feet in the high tide mark, all day, in a garden?” Marie says. “And in the spring and fall, we have so many migratory birds coming through here and you just never know what you’re going to see and hear. You take in every minute, every minute.”

And it sure is beautiful.