January 30, 2013
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

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A young gray seal pup's wide black eyes contrast with its light fur. (Photo courtesy explore.org)

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Camera's Eye Focuses on Remote Gray Seals

"Seal Cam" monitors birthing on Maine's Seal Island

Move over osprey cam and bear cam. Meet seal cam, the first live streaming video camera to observe seals at a pupping and breeding colony on the east coast. The gray seal pupping camera on Maine's Seal Island officially went live January 16 with a dual purpose: gray seal research and the opportunity to reconnect the public with nature and a fascination with watching animals live in the wild.

Made available to NOAA Fisheries Service by explore.org, a philanthropic organization and a division of the Annenberg Foundation, seal cam is streaming live footage daily during the gray seal pupping season through early February. The footage can be seen on explore.org's web site at www.explore.org and at http://explore.org/#!/live-cams/player/seal-pups-cam.

The second largest gray seal pupping colony in the United States occurs on Seal Island. The 65-acre uninhabited island is located in outer Penobscot Bay about 21 miles south of Rockland and is also home to large colonies of Atlantic puffins, Arctic terns, and other seabirds. The island is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and managed in cooperation with the National Audubon Society as the Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Muskeget Island, a small island just north of Nantucket off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, is the largest gray seal breeding and pupping colony on the U.S. East Coast.

For NOAA seal researchers Stephanie Wood and Gordon Waring of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) in Woods Hole, Mass., the opportunity to use a remote camera to observe gray seals during their annual pupping season is a bonus, and a bit of luck.

Two cameras were originally set up on Seal Island by explore.org in early 2012 to document the summer puffin migration, a project led by Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society. When the project ended, Kress approached NOAA's Wood and Waring and asked if they were interested in using one of the idle cameras in their gray seal research. They jumped at the chance.

Researchers usually observe seals in the wild for a few days at a time, or by aerial surveys. Observing seals remotely for weeks at a time is a rare opportunity, especially during pupping season. Waring, who heads the seal research program at the NEFSC, welcomes the opportunity to use the camera footage to better understand gray seal ecology, especially during the logistically challenging winter months. The seal cam will also be helpful in providing data to develop a pup production model, something that does not exist for the U.S. population.

Waring also hopes the camera footage will allow biologists to identify adult seals that have been tagged or physically identified elsewhere, enabling researchers to learn more about seal movements and life history.

Wood visited Seal Island in October 2012 with a technical team from explore.org to prepare the seal cam for operation, making some required updates and modifications from the puffin project for gray seal observations during the winter months. Solar panels power the camera system, which sits on a small tower and streams live video during daylight hours.

Wood, along with explore.org staff and volunteers from the summer bird projects and elsewhere, can change the camera view remotely to capture specific data on seals or seal activities. Anyone interested in wildlife can access the camera via mobile phones, tablets or computers, fulfilling explore.org's goal of using technology to bring nature to people around the world.

"It's watching nature in action," Wood said. “As researchers, we are interested in learning when the first pups arrive, how long they keep their white coats, and how long they stay ashore after birth before heading off on their own.”

Wood said the video would also provide information about behavior between mothers and pups, between adult seals, and between seals and the other island residents like bald eagles and other birds. "We will also get better estimates of the numbers of mothers and pups. We have single-day mother and pup counts from our aerial surveys, but need a broader view of the population."

"Having a live camera will educate people that seals exist throughout the region," said Robert DiGiovanni, Jr, executive director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in Riverhead, New York, a partner with NOAA on seal research projects. "Over the last decade or so, we have seen an increase in seals in southern New England and New York.  This project will link the public to seals throughout the region, and give the public an idea of the effort required to monitor seal populations."

The seal cam will remain in operation through February, a period during which hundreds of seals could be born on the island. The mothers remain onshore with their pups for approximately three weeks after birth. Pups are quickly weaned and soon shed their white fur, or lanugo, then enter the water and learn to catch prey and live on their own.

Jason Damata, a spokesman for explore.org, said the live cameras are a modern portal to the natural world. "They help people everywhere connect with nature from the convenience of a phone, computer or tablet and fall in love with the world again, while also providing an unprecedented view into gray seal and bald eagle populations."

"Few moments in nature speak to the hearts of people more than watching an animal in the first days of life," said Charles Annenberg Weingarten, founder of explore.org.

Woods hopes the images will be archived, enabling researchers interested in other aspects of the gray seal environment on the island to "mine" the visual data for other research projects.

There is plenty to do. Wood began working at the NEFSC's Woods Hole Laboratory while pursuing a Ph.D.in biology, received in 2009 from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her doctoral research project focused on the recolonization of gray seals in the United State. Woods' advisors were the NEFSC’s Waring and Solange Brault of UMass Boston. The three will work together to develop a pup production model using data from the seal cam.

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(File Modified Jan. 30 2013)