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Live cameras make stars of Southeast's Steller sea lions

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

Juneau Scientist Brendan Kelly doesn't have to leave his office to see wild sea lions - the behemoths come to him.

They do not muscle down his door, but fly through the air as digitized bits, courtesy of two live video cameras set up by the federal government on Benjamin Island, a sea lion haulout roughly 25 miles north of downtown Juneau.

As the mammoth beasts cavort and feast, Big Brother not only is watching their every move, the images are transmitting live on the Internet and to the University of Alaska - while Kelly records the footage on video tape for research.

The new state-of-the-art system could eventually mean scientists will travel less to remote sites to study the animals.

"My first reaction was anxiety - I'd hate to replace going out in the field with staring at video monitors," said Kelly, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor based in Juneau. But "when we got a good clean signal coming across, it was pretty impressive."

The pilot project is part of a joint effort by the university and the National Marine Fisheries Service - the federal agency that manages Steller sea lions. The animals are considered so imperiled in western Alaska a federal judge in July closed large areas near the sea lions' critical habitat to commercial fishermen.

Scientists hope the sea lions here will betray behavior on video that will ultimately help answer why populations are dwindling in other parts of the state. Researchers plan to intensively study the footage by counting the animals, identifying them and watching their interactions. Kelly said they may find clues to what ails the western herds by studying the behavior of healthy sea lions and comparing it to populations in decline.

"We suspect the losses to the population (in western Alaska) are happening in the juvenile age classes - they're not making it through weaning," Kelly said. The video project will "help us confirm whether or not the losses to the population are in fact happening through failure of the young to survive."

The project was made possible by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who has steered millions of dollars to government agencies to study the western Alaska sea lions, considered an endangered species. The National Marine Fisheries Service in September hired SeeMore Wildlife, a private company that recently set up critter cameras on an island near Seward to transmit live images to the Alaska SeaLife Center, said Tom Loughlin of the National Marine Mammals Lab, a division of NMFS.

Loughlin said the agency was impressed with the Seward project and paid SeeMore Wildlife about $60,000 to set up two weatherproof, robotic cameras on Benjamin Island, home to roughly 500 sea lions in winter. The company, based in Homer, owns the images, which it transmits to university researchers for about $100 a day, Loughlin said. SeeMore Wildlife also posts the footage live on the Internet at www.seemorewildlife.com. and www.nationalgeographic.com.

The advantage of the live video system is "you can get to these sites continuously and you're not inhibited by weather," Loughlin said. "And you don't have to have people onsite year-round to get the data."

The camera batteries are charged by a wind generator and solar panels, and the video is transmitted live by microwave to the Juneau campus, said Kelly of the university. He and his students can remotely zoom in, move the cameras from side to side and activate "windshield wipers" on the lenses through a computer keyboard linked to the cameras by radio signals, Kelly said. Using a special code, researchers also can control the equipment from any computer connected to the Internet.

"There is a gold mine of behavior you can study in detail," Kelly said.

The project has raised some technical hurdles for the SeeMore Wildlife team, which faced the challenge of making the system work in a sometimes hostile environment.

In December, the Benjamin Island cameras suddenly went black. When SeeMore's technical experts arrived, they found the wind generator in pieces.

"The wind tore the blades off of it - and these are industrial wind generators. They're rated to 100-120 knots," said Stephen Howell, project manager of SeeMore Wildlife.

However, Howell said the system is remarkably stable considering the unfriendly environment and the 1,500 pound sea lions "snuggling up" to the equipment.

"We've seen a sea lion with its head resting on the camera," said Howell, laughing.

Maybe it was rehearsing for its next movie role.

Loughlin of NMFS said the federal government probably later this year will attach cameras to the animals' heads. The equipment eventually will fall off the sea lions and researchers will have to retrieve it. Also, the head cams will store only recorded images instead of transmitting video live. That will have to wait for the sequel.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com



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