January 17, 2013

Live camera shows Maine seals in natural habitat

The Associated Press

PORTLAND — A Web camera that records seal-pupping activities on a remote Maine island began streaming live to the public Thursday. It's believed to be the first live-streaming camera at any seal-pupping site on the East Coast.

click image to enlarge

This Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 photo provided by explore.org shows seals on Seal Island, Maine via a camera set to record seal-pupping activities on the remote island. Images have begun streaming live to the public on Thursday in what's believed to be the first live-streaming camera at an East Coast seal-pupping site. Similar high-definition cameras have been set up around the world in recent years to capture the activities of eagles, polar bears, loons, black bears and other animals. The camera on Seal Island, about 20 miles off the midcoast of Maine, provides views of gray seals that migrate to the island each year to give birth. (AP Photo/explore.org, Janine Parziale)

click image to enlarge

This Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 photo provided by explore.org shows a seal on Seal Island, Maine via a camera set to record seal-pupping activities on the remote island. Images have begun streaming live to the public on Thursday in what's believed to be the first live-streaming camera at an East Coast seal-pupping site. Similar high-definition cameras have been set up around the world in recent years to capture the activities of eagles, polar bears, loons, black bears and other animals. The camera on Seal Island, about 20 miles off the midcoast of Maine, provides views of gray seals that migrate to the island each year to give birth. (AP Photo/explore.org, Janine Parziale)

Similar high-definition cameras have been set up around the world in recent years to capture the activities of eagles, polar bears, loons, black bears and other animals. The camera on Seal Island, about 20 miles off Maine's midcoast, provides views of gray seals that migrate to the island each year to give birth.

It's expensive and difficult for scientists to visit gray seal-pupping grounds because they are on islands, and the seals give birth in the winter, when ocean conditions can be inhospitable.

Seal Island's tower-mounted camera gives scientists a look into the progression of seal-pupping season so they can gather information such as when the peak occurs and how long it takes seal pups to molt, said Stephanie Wood, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It also allows the public to watch "nature in action," she said.

The 65-acre island is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and managed in cooperation with the National Audubon Society.

Audubon, in conjunction with explore.org, set up two cameras on the island last spring to stream live video of clown-like Atlantic puffins, which live on the island each summer.

With the puffins gone for the season, Audubon offered to let NOAA keep one of the cameras on the island to record the gray seals that swim there each fall.

Seal Island is the second-largest pupping ground for gray seals in the U.S., with more than 500 living there during the six-week season from December into early February. (Muskeget Island off southern Massachusetts has the largest breeding colony.)

The project is funded by explore.org, a philanthropic organization in Santa Monica, Calif., and a division of the Annenberg Foundation, with the aim of connecting people to nature. The video can be seen on explore.org's website.

"With the new seal pupping cam, we are helping people escape the urban squalor and, if only for a moment, reconnect with nature in its purest state," Charlie Annenberg, founder of explore.org, said in a prepared statement.

Wood and explore.org say they don't know of any other camera that streams live video of gray seals giving birth. Gordon Waring, who heads the seal research program at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., said he's not aware of any cameras, but they might be used in other countries.

Scientists and explore.org producers can operate the camera remotely -- tilting it, moving it side to side and zooming in and out -- to get better views of the 300-pound mother seals and the newborn pups, covered in thick white fur.

The camera also provides shots of seals quarreling among themselves and interacting with bald eagles.

The camera will allow biologists to identify adult seals that have been tagged or branded elsewhere and learn more about their movements and life history, Wood said.

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