Webcam captures clear peek into lives of bears

Broadcast-quality bruin footage sent straight to Internet

Posted: Monday, July 30, 2007

ANCHORAGE - It's 7:09 a.m. and the McNeil River bears are loitering at the water's edge, waiting for silver salmon to show. Fishing season is here, and the bears are hungry.

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Fast-moving water thunders and an occasional bear grunt can be heard over the raucous calls of hovering shorebirds awaiting scraps.

It's Alaska at its wildest - and it's coming to you in the form of a movie clip in your computer.

For the first time, said Homer wildlife videographer Daniel Zatz, viewers worldwide can glimpse a slice of remote, same-day Alaska in clear, high-definition format - digital images are so clear it is possible to see water dripping from bears' fur or fish pieces falling onto their paws as they shred their meal into bite-sized bits.

"I dreamed up the idea in 1999, when we built the first live camera for McNeil River," said Zatz, who works with National Geographic and Homer's Pratt Museum to maintain the live webcam at the McNeil River. "It's always been my dream to create real broadcast-quality images on the Web. I wanted to not just capture nature and deliver it live to the world, but be able to capture really gorgeous images."

Web Links

To view bear films, visit the Web at and link to the daily McNeil River activity.

Zatz created the project by first building a 110-mile connection from Homer to McNeil, using a series of wireless radio links, solar panels and fuel cells to handle the amount of information being transported. A robotic camera that films HD video was mounted at the McNeil River viewing platform, alongside the more traditional live-stream camera used by National Geographic and the Pratt Museum.

The technology is dependable enough to stream live to Zatz's computers but not foolproof enough yet to go over the Internet for general audiences. That's why this year, the project is still in experimental stages.

Filming of the McNeil bears takes place daily.

Every morning at 4:30, Zatz fires up the system that powers the camera, which he calls "BearCam."

"We drive the camera around for two to three hours and record the parts that are good and don't record other parts."

Then Zatz turns the machines off and starts editing, condensing up to three hours of activity into a 5- to 10-minute HD film that can be viewed by general audiences daily through the first week in August.

It's a lot of work, Zatz acknowledged, and there is no financial gain - yet. Still, he persists because he wants to stay ahead of the technology and he likes the idea of making remote Alaska more accessible without interfering with the animals' lives.

"Hopefully, tens of thousands of people around the world will wake up with their morning cup of coffee and watch the world unfold in HDTV right on their computers," he said.

Chris Smith, head ranger at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage, said the center has been showing the daily videos since July 18. The National Park Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have supported Zatz's work, too, because seeing the bears so clearly can help in managing them.

"The films are ongoing on a 42-inch flat screen in our visitor area," Smith said. "We have a lot of people who like to just stand or sit on benches and just watch the bears."

Something about the simplicity of the bears' interactions stops visitors, Smith said. Just about everyone who comes into the center - and he estimated 5,000 visitors the first week the video was up - stops at least for a moment or two.

"I think the interaction with the bears with each other is interesting, and we're even starting to notice certain seagulls with certain bears out there," Smith said. "There's an amateur (young) seagull, too, that is entertaining to us."

Smith said the center used to display Zatz's live webcam, which uses the more traditional analog technology, to produce live feeds from McNeil. While entertaining, Smith said, the picture was not as clear and there were long stretches of time without much happening.

The edited HD version keeps people more interested, he said.

"I think it's probably over 10 times clearer than what we used before," Smith said. "We're very pleased by this, because it's a really great event for us. Most people won't ever get out to Katmai, so this brings it to them."

To view Zatz's films so far, go to his Web site,, and link to the daily McNeil River activity. You need the most recent version of QuickTime to play the files, which are available in AppleTV, iPod and iPhone versions as well.

Big versions of the files take a long time to download but the smaller ones take only a minute or so. It's all free, Zatz said, and he's eager to hear viewers' opinions.

"The shows are observational," he said. "The idea is that you are sitting at the river and this is what might you see. We try to leave the shots on really long and try to let people watch the bears without forcing the story."

Joe Spring, a research assistant at Outside magazine, discovered the HD films and said he is "amazed at the quality of the images," an accomplishment he said is unheard of in other remote webcam productions.

"The zooms are clear and powerful enough to see the fish gasp as the bear holds it with its claws and tears it apart with its teeth," he wrote in an e-mail. "It's not a view you'd want to try and get in the wild. Here you can get lifelike images, complete with sound, from the confines of your home."

That was the goal, Zatz said. With HD, it's not just a bear you see, but the water trickling down its back as it climbs out of the river; its claws curving as it grasps a salmon; its ears flicking in response to noise, insects or other bears in the area.

"There is so much detail," Zatz said. "No longer are we just seeing a bear, now we're seeing the bear's eyelashes. "It's not just the river, but fins of the sockeye in the river. There is so much more to see with each shot with this technology."

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