Story last updated at 4:12 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 2002

Remote camera puts bears in bars
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Daniel Zatz, left, and Blake Granville reposition an antenna on Mount Augustine recently to enhance the quality of the picture it relays from McNeil river.  
In the tradition of photographer Ansel Adams, there has long been a connection between images of wild places and efforts to preserve them and their inhabitants.

These days, cameras with a touch of NASA and James Bond are pushing that relationship into the 21st Century, allowing the science community and the general public to view live scenes of wildlife in the some of the most remote corners of Alaska and the world beyond.

At the forefront of this technological revolution is SeeMore Wildlife Systems Inc., a high-tech company in Homer started four years ago by Daniel Zatz.

Since then, the company has seen its waterproof robotic cameras broadcast images of Gull Island seabirds, McNeil River brown bears, Gulf of Alaska sea lions and Pacific green sea turtles.

"It's just an amazing vehicle to excite people about the conservation issues facing the different wildlife species," said Lane Chesley, SeeMore Wildlife's general manager.

That excitement, Zatz agreed, is the best way to educate people and to get them to care.

Currently, tourists stopping by the Homer Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center to pick up brochures find themselves marveling at images of Alaska's brown bears fishing for salmon on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Some wander in and end up sitting on the couch in front of the wide screen for hours, according to Jared Szajkowski, a Homer High School student. Zatz employs Szajkowski six days a week to drive the remote-control zoom and panning motors on the camera located over 100 miles away.

"It's quite an eye opener," Szajkowski said as a bystander pointed to a bear that was deftly skinning its chum salmon lunch.

Since Zatz struck a recent deal with GCI cable, the McNeil bears have been playing live 24 hours a day on local cable channel 3, something that has encroached on the amount of sports being shown in Homer's bars.

"Our customers will stay and have an extra cocktail and watch because they're so curious about the bears," said Colleen Wagner, a bartender at Duggan's Waterfront Pub. "I've even brought in a map so I can show them where (McNeil River) is."

Just down the street from Duggan's, in their Bunnell Avenue offices, Zatz and his crew design and build the cameras. They also design and build the software that drives the cameras and processes their images. The company now employs a full-time staff of seven. The camera systems are predominantly leased, though Zatz said they are beginning to sell some systems outright.

The remote cameras, which typically beam a microwave signal back to civilization, allow researchers and wildlife managers to cut down on the expense of collecting data from far away field sites, leaving the wildlife undisturbed.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has contracted Zatz and his cameras to aid in salmon surveys on remote streams. The cameras recognize when fish swim into the image and mark that portion of the recording.

This image-recognition component of the SeeMore Wildlife Systems technology gained the attention of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has installed cameras in Arizona at border crossings. From there, the cameras calculate the number of cars waiting to cross and the system provides an estimate on waiting times.

A prime selling point for Zatz's camera systems is that they were designed to withstand the Alaska environment.

One of SeeMore Wildlife Systems' best customers is the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, where pictures from the Chiswell Island sea lion rookery fascinate visitors and provide the center's researchers with invaluable data. Zatz said the amount of maintenance and repair work needed for the remote cameras has decreased markedly, another big selling point. Emergency fixes at most of the sites require a helicopter charter.

The SeaLife Center now employs four researchers to monitor the images coming from the rookery cameras, Zatz said.

"One of the cool things I never imagined is all the people it employs," Zatz said, referring to the people who are employed to drive camera controls and interpret the data they receive.

The live images of McNeil bears are being used at Texas A & M University to develop academic standards for curricula involving remote cameras.

SeeMore Wildlife Systems now has cameras installed in states from coast to coast, including Maine, Arizona, California, Oregon, Hawaii and in at least eight sites in Alaska.

"What we want to do is build the best robotic camera systems, period," Zatz said. "And as the research scientists begin exploring how to use this system, we see our product being used for wildlife research and education around the world."

The future Zatz envisions is apparently not far off. Zatz is currently in Quebec installing a system that will relay pictures and sounds from the beluga whales that swim in the St. Lawrence River.