PORTLAND, Maine — You can now get a rare glimpse into the secret life of seals via a live-streaming camera perched on a remote island off the coast of Maine. The sneak peek is particularly welcome as COVID-restricted Mainers stay home for the holidays and inside on the coldest, shortest days of the year.

The solar-powered camera, running on Seal Island, 20 miles southeast of Rockland, keeps an eye on puffins and other sea birds all summer. In the winter months, it watches the enclave’s namesake: Seals. Winter is a good time to observe them. December through February is prime seal-pupping time and cam-gazers can observe the miracle of birth and the fuzzy, big-eyed babies as they nurse and snuggle with their moms.

Donald Lyons is a professor at Oregon State University who studies sea birds on the island every summer with the Audubon Society. The livestream is a wonderful opportunity for people to get close to seals, Lyons said, especially during the current pandemic, when people are feeling isolated and shut in.

“We usually see them in the water and only rarely on land,” he said. “In times like these, to be able to connect with nature, it’s a real solace. It’s invaluable.”

Young gray seal pups rest with their mothers on Seal Island off the coast of Maine this year. The image is taken from a live web cam operated by the Audubon Society and Explore.org. Credit: Courtesy of Audubon Society and Explore.org

Seal Island is a National Wildlife Refuge and former U.S. Navy ballistic firing range. The camera is a joint venture between Audubon and Explore.org, which maintains numerous live-streaming wildlife cameras around the globe. Explore is a philanthropic media organization and division of the larger Annenberg Foundation.

In the summer, as many as six cameras stream at the same time on the island, watching the birds. All of Explore’s remote cams are panned and zoomed by volunteers, who could be anywhere.

“Our Hog Island cam is run by a woman in Germany,” Lyons said.

Hog Island is in Bremen and the camera there keeps an eye on osprey.

During the many hours of darkness each day, the seal cam shows a pre-recorded highlight reel.

The pinnipeds using Seal Island are gray seals. They’re found all over the North Atlantic Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Adult females are about 7.5 feet long and weigh about 550 pounds. Males are about 10 feet long and weigh about 880 pounds. Males have longer noses than females. It’s so distinctive that its scientific name — Halichoerus grypus — means “hooked-nosed pig of the sea.”

The seals have been using the island for a maternity ward for the last 20 years. Since then, the colony has grown to the second largest gray seal pupping location in North America. An estimated 500 pups can be born in a single season on the island, according to Audubon.

Newborn gray seals weigh about 35 pounds. Pups nurse on high-fat milk for about three weeks, gaining about three pounds per day. Their white fur is called lanugo. It helps absorb sunlight, trapping heat and keeping the pups warm.

It also makes them look like adorable, living stuffed animals.

“Seals are charismatic and cute,” Lyons said. “It’s fascinating to watch the mothers nurse the pups. We get to see natural behaviors that we’re not influencing.”

After three weeks of mother’s milk, the pups are left alone. Their mothers return to the sea and wait for their offspring to shed their baby fur and enter the water. Once there, they learn to fend for themselves.

Viewers be warned, Audubon advises. Half of all gray seal pups don’t survive. The camera often reveals large groups of bald eagles gathering to eat the unfortunate seals, or at least their birth placentas.

Despite this reality, Lyons believes viewers will enjoy their time watching the camera this winter via a laptop and cozy armchair.

“Especially during this pandemic,” he said. “People can really get some restorative value out of any kind of connection with nature — just like this.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.