July 26, 2005

Now Streaming Live: Pacific Walruses

JUNEAU, Alaska -- Wallowing and snorting as they jockey for position on the rocks, the two-ton walruses may not be the prettiest of Internet reality show stars. But two cameras installed at the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary off Alaska's southwest coast are giving scientists and Web surfers alike the chance to follow the drama of the Bering Sea mammals' everyday lives.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game has installed the "walrus cams" on Round Island in the Bering Sea, giving online viewers a chance to see the walruses in their natural habitat on the Web page for the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

Joe Meehan, a Fish & Game lands and refuges coordinator, said the walrus cams provide an essential research tool for wildlife biologists and entertainment for wildlife enthusiasts.

"Monitoring walrus populations is a difficult and expensive task that requires observers at each remote location," Meehan said.

The department has staff on the island counting walruses every day, and the cameras will help the effort.

"Web cameras may ultimately allow for more accurate and economical walrus counts," Meehan said.

For the more casual observer, Jason Wettstein of the Alaska SeaLife Center said the center is providing the bandwidth necessary for Internet users to view the live shots.

"We've already gotten a lot of hits," he said.

A terminal and monitor installed at the Alaska SeaLife Center will give visitors a chance to switch between three preset camera angles for viewing the walruses. Mike Pendergast, a computer scientist for the center's research department, said the big screen is expected to be operational within the next few days.

What Web surfers will see is a live stream from the cameras set a quarter of a mile apart above the shore. The cameras look down on the rocky beach and catch all the action of a half-dozen or more Pacific walruses at a time while they are at rest or at play in their natural environment.

Meehan said the walrus counts on the islands vary significantly from year to year. In 2000, about 8,500 were counted on the island. This year the highest count so far is 2,300.

The lower numbers are probably not a sign of a declining population, but many have likely relocated to abandoned haulouts in Bristol Bay that were used through the mid-1900s until commercial harvesting drove the walruses away, he said.

The project cost about $40,000 and is a joint effort by Fish & Game, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Pacific Walrus Conservation Fund, the National Parks Service and the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Meehan said the main focus of the project is to educate and promote conservation. Along with the walruses, the islands are home to sea lions and about a quarter of a million sea birds.


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