Marine Mammals of Maine founder Lynda Doughty on the dock at Hawkes’ Lobster in Cundy’s Harbor. One of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2021 for her work to rescue seals, Doughty is in her element on a boat or in a lab. (KELLI PARK PHOTO)

From the sand dunes of Cape Cod to the rugged shores of Penobscot Bay, there is one woman who hearkens to the call of the wild in every fiber of her being. For Lynda Doughty, this call was catalyzed in the depths of the New Meadows River and has since taken on a life of its own.

Doughty, the founder and executive director of Marine Mammals of Maine, was recently selected as one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2021. Her nonprofit rescues and cares for stranded marine mammals, mostly seals.

“Marine mammals and lobsters caught my eye at a young age. … I have a passion for both of them,” said Doughty, who grew up in Phippsburg and recently obtained her lobster license. “I knew what I wanted to do. I just didn’t know how to get there. It wasn’t a real clear-cut path. I really wanted to be able to do what I love and stay in the state of Maine.”

Doughty began to delve more deeply into her love for the ocean by studying marine biology at Maine Maritime Academy and volunteering at a mammal response and rehabilitation center in Westbrook while working on a lobster boat as well.

Over the next few years, Doughty immersed herself in the field of marine mammals by working for response programs, including one at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The DMR program closed in 2011, when Doughty began to realize that the Maine’s piecemeal approach to caring for marine mammals did not bode well for the animals’ future.

“It’s been here, there and everywhere … with a lot of inconsistency over the years,” Doughty said. People will call to report a stranded animal “and they’re not sure who they’re talking to or where they are,” she added. “I wanted there to be one voice on the other end of the phone.”

With that in mind, her vision came to life. “The state of Maine needed to fill this void,” said Doughty. She reorganized an existing nonprofit with a group of volunteers in late 2011 and obtained permits to respond to, but not rehabilitate, marine mammals. Since then, the organization has adopted a four-pronged approach: outreach, education, response and animal care.

When the University of New England closed its marine mammal rehabilitation program in 2014, Maine and much of the Northeast were left without a rehabilitation facility. The loss inspired Doughty to secure the funding and permits necessary for rehabilitation — first short-term triage, then long-term care that continues until an animal is ready for release.

As luck would have it, Marine Mammals of Maine soon laid down roots in an industrial building with bait storage in Harpswell.

“She’s a great person to be doing what she’s doing because she balances well with the fishermen (in Harpswell). They all relate to her so well because she’s one of them,” said Jennie Bichrest, then-owner of Purse Line Bait. Bichrest rented the space to Doughty starting in 2016. “She’s always willing to jump in, like when she jumped up on the trailer and helped me move bait barrels, even though I didn’t ask her to,” Bichrest said.

Bichrest recalled being impressed at the transformation of the empty space with aquarium-like tanks and a triage and rehabilitation center, with the seals’ food conveniently stored in bait freezers next door.

“We’ve trained ourselves to do the best job that we can do for this. We do it because the state of Maine needs it,” said Doughty. “Animals are not going to stop showing up.”

The clientele at Marine Mammals of Maine has historically consisted of seals, although dolphins, porpoises, whales and sea turtles have also made appearances over the years. The organization responds to about 300 cases each year, including animals that are alive and deceased, from Kittery to Rockland.

Most cases, Doughty said, are a result of increasing human activity on the coast, which creates stress for animals in their natural habitats. Recently, the organization relocated to a larger facility in Brunswick with space to rehabilitate up to 12 animals at a time in the summer — fewer in the winter, when the animals are bigger.

Lynda Doughty weighs lobsters on the wharf at Hawkes’ Lobster in Cundy’s Harbor. (KELLI PARK PHOTO)

Doughty, who lives on the New Meadows River in Phippsburg, doesn’t typically leave the state during the busy season for marine mammal strandings, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But in the winter months, she spends a fair amount of time off the coast of Cape Cod, where she works with a Massachusetts organization to take biological samplings and tag gray seals in a pupping colony, collecting data about their health and behavior.

The excitement doesn’t end there for Doughty, who recalled a trip to retrieve a deceased whale by boat and bring it in for dissection. She said she was hanging over the side of the boat, trying to get the rope around the tail on a time limit, when she noticed that she wasn’t the only one interested in the whale.

“The ‘Jaws’ scene was definitely going on. I asked myself, what if there’s another shark that I can’t see and it comes up at the same time?” said Doughty, who found herself in the company of several hungry white sharks. “It was just a little moment of: how many sharks are feeding on this whale right now?”

Doughty has proven time and time again that she thrives on navigating the depths of her work on the water with a flair all her own. Her goals for the future are simple and complex, reflecting the changing nature of the coast that she calls home.

“She will always be a huge part of the marine community, I’m sure. She’ll always help in any way that she can,” said Bichrest.

“How do we surround ourselves with a team of people who can help sustain this organization in the future and still stay true to our vision in doing that?” said Doughty, who hopes to increase capacity for rehabilitation and provide more education and outreach opportunities. “It’s hard to show people what we do. We’re trying to bridge that gap so that people will be able to see the work that we do without hindering the animals’ recovery.”

The odds are working in Doughty’s favor lately. Subaru of America Inc. has matched $50,000 in donations to her organization since she was named one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2021, bringing the total amount of donations to more than $100,000.

Doughty’s wishlist for the future involves a marine center for research, outreach and education. “We don’t have anything like that in Maine that gives us a snapshot into the Gulf of Maine and the animals inhabiting those waters,” she said.

Despite her recent success, Doughty recognizes that there are no easy solutions for some of the issues that have divided conservationists and the commercial fishing industry in recent years. As a conservationist and a fisherman, she navigates those waters with her characteristic grace and grit.

“You have to keep yourself open to conversations, even the hard ones. We want to figure out how both of these coexist. I wish I had a clear answer and could say, ‘This is a win-win.’ There’s pressure to pick sides. It’s not that black and white in the end,” said Doughty. “How do you work together?”

Freelance journalist Kelli Park has contributed to The Times Record, The Working Waterfront, Edible Maine and The Coastal Journal. A part-time college instructor and teacher of English to speakers of other languages, she lives in Cundy’s Harbor with her son, Kieran.

A grant from the Broad Reach Fund supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on the working waterfront.