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Crittercam ready to take on whale of a challenge

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published February 09. 2011 4:00AM   Updated February 09. 2011 7:01PM
Tim Cook/The Day
Charles Barnum Elementary School fourth-graders Haley Dill, 9, left, and Kylie Brumm, 9, interact with the new National Geographic Crittercam exhibit Tuesday at Mystic Aquarium. The bubble exhibit allows children to be filmed by a mock-up of a penguin with the camera on its back. The participants can then see themselves on a closed circuit, time delayed playback.
Mystic Aquarium tests device for future use on wild belugas

Mystic - Over the past 16 years, Tracy Romano, the senior vice president of research and zoological operations at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, has spent some of her summers in Point Lay, Alaska, studying wild beluga whales with a team of other scientists.

They've observed whales from boats and shore, tracked their movements with satellite transmitters and even studied whales killed by native villagers for food.

But this summer the Crittercam may give Romano an unprecedented look into the lives of wild belugas.

The Crittercam is a camera system invented by Greg Marshall 24 years ago. He got the idea while diving on the reefs of Belize and seeing a remora attached to a shark. He thought that a small camera system could attach to the shark just like the small fish and provide valuable scientific information to researchers.

Since then, Marshall with the help of engineers, has refined the Crittercam, and attached it to whales, sharks, turtles, penguins, lions, bears and other animals via a harness, suction cup or other means. It gives scientists a view of an animal's life from their perspective and is seen as important in conservation and habitat protection. Footage from Marshall's Crittercam has been featured in numerous National Geographic television specials.

The possible use of the Crittercam on belugas was announced Tuesday as the aquarium opened a traveling National Geographic exhibit called "Crittercam: The World Through Animal Eyes" in its Challenge of the Deep exhibit hall. It will remain on display through November.

The first people to get a look at the exhibit, which is filled with video screens showing Crittercam footage and numerous interactive exhibits, were fourth-grade students from the Charles Barnum Elementary School in Groton.

The students could be heard saying, "Wow, this is cool!" and "This is so awesome!" as they rushed into the exhibit Tuesday and began exploring the different sections.

Aquarium President and CEO Stephen Coan said the exhibit is a nice fit with the aquarium's mission of promoting education, research and technology. It is the latest collaboration between National Geographic and the aquarium.

One of the most popular exhibits is one in which children can climb into a bubble and be filmed by a Crittercam mounted on a penguin model. A delay allows them to see themselves on a television screen.

In another exhibit, visitors walk into an enclosure formed by columns of bubbles. Above them is large screen that shows footage from a Crittercam mounted on a humpback whale as it emits a blast of bubbles to disorient fish it is trying to eat. In other sections, visitors can design their own Crittercam and, a fur seal takes viewers on a roller-coaster ride through the water.

The latter issue is one that Marshall has been working on this week with Romano and other aquarium scientists as they attached a Crittercam to Kela, one of the beluga whales that lives in the Arctic Coast exhibit. They want to see if they can use suction cups to attach the Crittercam to Kela and determine if the camera will interfere with her natural behavior. Marshall said Tuesday that he always tries out the camera on captive animals before deploying it on a new species in the wild.

Romano said the hope is to use the Crittercam on a wild beluga this summer if the required permit can be obtained. It would be the first time a Crittercam has been placed on a wild beluga.

Romano said the Crittercam will give researchers a look into the lives of the belugas that they've never had before. "For the past few years we've used satellite transmissions to track the animals. We know where they're going. We've also found that they stay in one location for a period of time. We want to understand what they are doing in that area. Are they foraging? If they are, what are they feeding on. Now we can see what they are eating," she said.

Romano said that over the past two weeks, aquarium staff have been testing whether a small or large suction cup works best to attach the Crittercam to the whale's skin and whether it should be placed behind its blowhole or pectoral fin. She said the Crittercam was attached to Kela for 30 minutes Tuesday with no problems. She said it would be left on for a few hours today.

When scientists want to check the footage shot by the Crittercam they can send a signal that causes it to detach. They can the track it down in the water and retrieve it. Of the 700 times the Crittercam has been deployed, it has been recovered 96 percent of the time, Marshall said.

Romano said the aquarium would include footage shot by the Crittercam in the Arctic Coast Exhibit where the belugas live.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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