Camera streams video of birthing gray seals

PORTLAND, Maine — A camera that records seal-pupping activities on a remote Maine island began streaming live to the public 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.

It’s expensive and difficult for scientists to visit gray seal-pupping grounds because they are on islands, with the births taking place in the winter when ocean conditions can be inhospitable.

Seal Island’s tower-mounted camera gives scientists a firsthand look into the progression of seal-pupping season so they can gather information such as when peak pupping 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 that make the island their home 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,” said Charlie Annenberg, founder of explore.org.

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 either, but that it’s possible 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 that are covered in thick, white fur. The camera also provides shots of seals quarreling among themselves and interacting with bald eagles.

The camera also 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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