July 19, 2006
Thanks to a collaborative effort among the Pratt Museum, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society, RealNetworks, SeeMore Wildlife Systems and others, images from remote camera aimed at bears inside the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary can now be viewed live on the Internet.
Right now the cameras are active from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Alaska time. From 1 to 5 p.m. daily, the camera is controlled by an interpreter at Homer's Pratt Museum who pans the McNeil Falls and zooms in on bears catching salmon or competing with each other over prime fishing spots. At other times, the camera cycles through a series of preset positions to provide a variety of views. The remote video system is shut off at night to conserve solar power.
Pratt Museum Director Heather Beggs said the camera has created a lively scene at the museum since the bears first showed up in early July. Crowds huddle around to watch the bears and to listen to the Lake Clark National Park interpreter who leads a discussion about bear biology and behavior. "People at the museum are just glued to that screen," Beggs said. Elsewhere in the world, "people are really excited we are bringing this into their living room." The Pratt Museum's summer hours are from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily.
Another interesting feature of the National Geographic website is a companion blog that has gathered comments from bear viewers all over the world, including some who say they are homebound and unable to travel to view bears in the wild, Beggs said.
Internet viewing of McNeil's bears has happened before but not for several years, according to Mike O'Meara, the project's coordinator at the Pratt. Now the Internet connection to the bears is back - and bigger than ever.
This year, the National Geographic Society stepped up its involvement in the Pratt's existing BearCam project through a partnership with the National Park Service to make the live video and audio from McNeil available throughout the world via its web site. According to Lake Clark National Park Superintendent Joel Hard, this project represents a unique collaboration involving state, federal, non-profit and commercial interests.
"WildCam Grizzlies would not have happened without partnerships. Each organization brought resources and expertise to the table and as a result, we're able to provide people who may never have an opportunity to observe brown bears in the wild with a live, real-time bear viewing experience from their home computers," Hard said.
Bear viewing at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, typically lasts from early July through mid-August. The omnivorous bears are drawn to the falls located across Cook Inlet from Homer because of the chum salmon that congregate there during their upstream migration to their spawning grounds. Visitors to McNeil are chosen by lottery.
Partners for the BearCam project
include the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Wildlife
Alliance, Friends of McNeil River, Lake Clark National Park and
Preserve and the National Geographic Society.
Homer's SeeMore Wildlife Systems first installed a remote camera at McNeil River Falls in 1999 as an experiment. Since then, the technology has continually been perfected. The microwave signal travels from a camera hidden in a fake boulder at the falls to the Pratt museum through a series of repeater stations, including one located atop volcanic Mount Augustine on Augustine Island. From the museum, the video feed is relayed to servers at RealNetworks, Inc. in Seattle, Washington. From there, the live streaming video is published on the National Geographic's Web site, where viewers access it online in real time.
Barring a volcanic eruption, poor weather, a bump to the camera from bears or other technical difficulties, the camera should be up and running until the bears leave the area sometime in August or September, O'Meara said.
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