Webcams bring elephant seals to you

Webcams bring elephant seals to you

Image recognition software trains cameras to track animals as drama unfolds on a California beach

BY TRUDY WALSH | GCN STAFF

A crowd of sleepy bodies basks on a California beach. One of the sunbathers kicks sand onto a smaller male, who grunts and turns over. Gulls squawk overhead.

This isn't a scene from 'Baywatch' or 'Beach Blanket Bingo.' This is a real-time reality drama brought to your PC from the A'o Nuevo State Reserve's elephant seal webcam at www.parks.ca.gov/central/bayarea/ansr228.htm.


'If you move slowly, they don't care that you're there installing webcams,' Daniel Zatz said.
California State Parks contracted with SeeMore Wildlife Systems Inc. of Homer, Alaska, to install three digital cameras on the A'o Nuevo Reserve, a windswept point 55 miles south of San Francisco. Each December, thousands of elephant seals come ashore to mate, molt and give birth. They stay until the end of March, then return to the sea.

For most species, a wildlife photography team installs Web cameras before the animals arrive, so as not to disturb them, said SeeMore's chief executive officer, Daniel Zatz. But not with elephant seals. 'If you move slowly, they don't care that you're there installing webcams,' Zatz said.

The seals' lack of fear around humans is one of the reasons the animals faced extinction in the 1800s. The animals were slaughtered for their blubber until their population was down to less than 100 by 1892. The federal government granted the seals protected status in the 1920s. Now their population has swelled to about 160,000.

Zatz developed the SeeMore wildlife cameras, which can be left in the wild for months at a time. The remote-controlled cameras use PIC processors from Microchip Technologies Inc. of Chandler, Ariz., and include solar panels, battery sensors, two-way data transmitters and windshield wipers. The cameras also are submersible, Zatz said.


California State Parks offer live streaming video of elephant seals at a Northern California wildlife reserve, at www.parks.ca.gov.
SeeMore's streaming video protocol, called ViewPort, uses image recognition software to train the camera to find certain colors and degrees of motion, Zatz said. The software teaches the camera to distinguish between the brown of an elephant seal and the brown of a shoreline, Zatz said. Most of the SeeMore software is written in C++ with a Visual Basic user interface.

All the angles

The three SeeMore cameras view the park from different elevations, Zatz said. One is right on the beach. The camera catches the waves breaking over the seals, like a scene out of 'From Here to Eternity.'

Using microwave and wireless technology, SeeMore officials send video and audio to what Alan Friedman, chief information officer of California State Parks, calls a 'hot dog' Internet connection. 'Then we compress the heck out of the video so we can distribute it over the Internet,' Friedman said.

Friedman and his team encode the compressed video using Microsoft Windows Media Player and send it to Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., for Web distribution.

The parks department has a concession agreement with SeeMore, Friedman said. 'A'o Nuevo is a natural wonder. We didn't have to twist [Zatz's] arm very hard to interest him in the webcam.'

SeeMore footed the cost of the installation and retains copyright of the video, Friedman said. 'But it was a bargain for the state,' he said. 'We provided SeeMore with entry and access to the state park, and they provided the services.'

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