11/30/2012 2:56:17 PM

Operating the Polar Bear Cam

By Valerie Abbott

When October rolls around ... what's the next best thing to being in Churchill, Manitoba? Having the opportunity to seek out polar bears from the comfort of home! To actually run the cameras that show the world these amazing animals during their migration is truly a dream for me.

Hello, my name is Valerie Abbott and I was one of the cam operators this year. My objective in life is to bring awareness to the plight of the polar bear. With the resources bestowed upon me, I feel the best way is through photographs and video. I must be doing something right as Polar Bears International asked me to run the cams for a second year. Either that or they couldn't find anybody else!

The first thing I needed to do was get set up. I decided to do so in my kitchen where I have plenty of room to spread out. Also things like food, drink were available. Each cam operator had four cams to choose from during their shift and an "overall view" window. This allowed us to monitor all four at once while operating one.

The excitement when that first image of the tundra flickered onto the screen was measurable. I reacted with a resounding "YES!!" which caused my dogs to jump and begin barking wildly. There I was, in the Arctic! Just knowing that bears were nearby gave me goosebumps. How cool to be sitting in North Carolina seeking out polar bears in the wild!

The first few days were a bit tentative. Finding landmarks, getting the feel of the joystick, learning what is wanted, and the little tricks of the zoom and search techniques. Next, it is THE search. I was so eager to find a bear I was actually nervous. And then there he was ... my first sighting. A bear wandering across the tundra. It might not seem like much, but to me it was one of the most beautiful sights I have seen since last year. He was hard to keep up with as I wasn't quite used to the controls yet. "Oh darn ... where did he go?" I asked myself as he trotted offscreen. I frantically zoomed out and panned trying to find him again. Luckily for me he had not gone very far and I was able to relocate him.

I finally found my groove with the controls and calmed my nerves a bit as well. The emotion of finding a bear was pure unadulterated joy. As the search continued those first few days I was thrilled beyond words each time I found a bear. I was proud that I could find one and follow him, even if just a few fleeting moments. 

It can get very exciting at times. You may have a bear on screen when you notice another bear has wandered onto a different one. What do you do? Should you stick with what you have or go to the other cam and try to get him? First you hope that one of the bears is fairly stationary so you can switch controls and get the other one. One of my proudest moments was when I had three different bears on three different cams. Admittedly two of them were laying down and the other was eating some kelp but still I was very happy! I confess that there were times when I totally ignored the other cams, but more on that later.

People have asked what's it like to run the cam. The best way for me to describe it is it's as if you were looking for a needle in a haystack. We have four very large areas to comb—each with brush, snow, wind, and polar bear impersonating rocks. A "polar bear impersonating rock" is one that has windblown snow and shadows that make it look very similar to an actual polar bear! I zoomed in on at least a few dozen of these the first weeks.

Three of the cams were mounted on immovable objects with a fourth being mobile. The Buggy One® cam roamed the tundra looking for bears that were not close to the other cams. Without the help of the Buggy One people there would be much less of those "ooh" and "ah" moments. They are superb at finding bears and getting into position. Heck, all we have to do is point the camera and follow along.

After the first few days my wrist and arm were starting to hurt. I realized that I was using a death-grip on the joystick. With my newly formed muscles I might challenge my friend to an arm-wrestling contest!

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