PORTLAND, Maine – You can now get a rare glimpse into the secret life of seals via a live broadcast camera perched on a remote island off the coast of Maine. The preview is especially welcome as COVID-restricted Mainers stay home for the holidays and indoors on the coldest and shortest days of the year.
The solar-powered camera, installed on Seal Island, 20 miles southeast of Rockland, monitors puffins and other seabirds all summer. During the winter months, he watches over the namesake of the enclave: the seals. Winter is a good time to observe them. December to February is the perfect time for seal whelping and cam watchers can observe the birth miracle and fuzzy babies with big eyes as they nurse and snuggle up with their mothers.
Donald Lyons is a professor at Oregon State University and studies seabirds on the island each summer with the Audubon Society. The livestream is a wonderful opportunity for people to get closer to the seals, Lyons said, especially during the current pandemic, when people feel isolated and locked in.
“We usually see them in water and rarely on land,” he said. “At times like these, being able to connect with nature is a real comfort. It is priceless.
Young gray seal pups are resting with their mothers on Seal Island off the coast of Maine this year. The image is taken from a live webcam operated by Audubon Society and Explore.org. Credit: Courtesy of Audubon Society and Explore.org
Seal Island is a National Wildlife Refuge and a former US Navy ballistic rifle range. The Camera is a joint venture between Audubon and Explore.org, which operates numerous live animal cameras around the world. Explore is a philanthropic media organization and a division of the larger Annenberg Foundation.
In summer, up to six cameras broadcast across the island at the same time, watching the birds. All of Explore’s remote cameras are panoramic and zoomed in by volunteers, who can be anywhere.
“Our Hog Island camera is led by a woman in Germany,” Lyons said.
Hog Island is in Bremen and the camera keeps an eye on the osprey.
During the many hours of darkness each day, the Seal’s camera shows a prerecorded highlight reel.
The pinnipeds that use Seal Island are gray seals. They are found all over the North Atlantic Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Adult females are around 7.5 feet long and weigh around 550 pounds. Males are around 10 feet long and weigh around 880 pounds. Males have longer noses than females. It is so distinctive that its scientific name – Halichoerus grypus – means “hook-nosed sea pig”.
Seals have used the island as a maternity hospital for 20 years. Since then, the colony has become the second largest gray seal birthing site in North America. It is estimated that 500 puppies can be born in a single season on the island, according to Audubon.
Newborn gray seals weigh around 35 pounds. Puppies nurse high-fat milk for about three weeks, gaining about three pounds per day. Their white fur is called lanugo. It helps absorb sunlight, lock in heat, and keep puppies warm.
It also makes them look like adorable living stuffed animals.
“Seals are charismatic and cute,” Lyons said. “It’s fascinating to see mothers breastfeed their babies. We can see natural behaviors that we don’t influence.
After three weeks of breast milk, the puppies are left alone. Their mothers return to the sea and wait for their offspring to get rid of their baby fur and enter the water. Once there, they learn to fend for themselves.
Viewers should be forewarned, advises Audubon. Half of the gray seal pups do not survive. The camera often reveals large groups of bald eagles that congregate to eat the hapless seals, or at least their birth placentas.
Despite this reality, Lyons believes viewers will enjoy their time staring at the camera this winter via a laptop and a comfortable chair.
“Especially during this pandemic,” he said. “People can really derive restorative value from any kind of connection with nature like that. “