It is 9:09 p.m. in Alaska, the temperature is 61 degrees, and a slender, brown bear stands below a small waterfall. All around the bear, salmon attempt to jump up the falls. Suddenly, the bear lunges into the water and emerges with one of the fish in his mouth. Seagulls hover over the scene, hoping to scavenge leftovers.
I’m watching this nature drama from the other side of the planet, live on my computer in northern Sweden.
I’m not the only one. Every summer during spawning season, millions of people watch bears gorge on salmon at Brooks Falls, a waterfall 290 miles southwest of Anchorage, in Katmai National Park and Preserve. It’s seasonality in the digital age: News sites around the world happily announce that the so-called Bear Cam is up and running again, and people flock to their screens.
There are obvious reasons that the feed is popular. Bears are attractive and exotic; when they spring into action on camera, it’s thrilling. But those moments are few and far between. For many hours of the day, there aren’t even bears in sight. Yet many people still spend the whole season tuning in. Last year, more than 22 million people visited Brooks Falls remotely through the feed.
So what draws so many people to the Bear Cam? How close can a computer really get to nature?
There is nothing new with people watching bears for entertainment. Bear-baiting was a popular spectacle in Shakespeare’s London, for instance. Much more recently, in the 1960s, seats were installed around the rubbish dumps in Yellowstone National Park for watching scavenging grizzlies, who had regularly gathered in the area to feed on garbage since the 1880s.
For contemporary bear watchers, Brooks Falls is a hotspot. Nature photographers and tourists have visited the site for its bears for decades, using the nearby Brooks Camp as a base. The camp is not accessible by road, yet has more than 20,000 visitors annually—a number dwarfed, of course, by the online audience.
The Bear Cam makes sense for Katmai National Park for two reasons. First, connecting nature with the social web helps national parks remain relevant in the digital age. Roy Wood, the ranger behind the Bear-Cam initiative, has called the livestream a “virtual campfire” and global meeting place for people to engage with the bears at the falls. Regular viewers have indeed formed a kind of community with each other, park rangers, and even the bears themselves—whom viewers have given names like Lurch, Holly, Grazer, Otis, and BB. The Bear-Cam web page has close to 130,000 comments, which discuss the stream and share recorded video highlights, including dramatic events such as when Grazer’s cubs went over the falls.
Second, the Bear Cam becomes a proxy for human presence in nature. This can be good for both humans and bears. People get to watch bears without traveling to remote Alaska, and the bears get to live without modifying their behaviors in response to human tourists. Keeping humans and bears apart is a constant struggle for Katmai National Park, so redirecting tourists to the digital sphere might reduce conflict.
The park had difficulty with the technical setup due to the remoteness of the location for years. Finally, in 2012, they received a $150,000 grant from Explore.org that allowed them to install high-quality webcams. The philanthropist Charles Annenberg Weingarten founded Explore.org to place webcams across the world to help people slow down and appreciate nature. Watching nature on a screen could, in his opinion, serve as a form of meditation, a digital zen moment.
There is indeed a zen-like quality to the Bear Cam and other nature webcams operated by Explore.org. So often, nothing much happens. There’s a waterfall with jumping salmon, sometimes many, sometimes few, with the light subtly shifting over time. The scene is almost like a screen saver. When bears appear, they are not there for entertainment; they come to feed, and leave when they feel like it.
Of course, the camera is placed in a location where the rangers know bears come. And it’s manipulated throughout the day to zoom in on any bear action. What the livestream doesn’t show is the viewing platform that’s right behind the camera, where tourists come to see the exact same view. In this respect, the stream is not all that different from an edited BBC nature documentary, with David Attenborough guiding the viewer through ever more spectacular scenes of the natural world. It’s real nature on display, but in a way that’s more carefully constructed than it seems. So just how authentic is what the Bear-Cam viewer sees?
In the book Wild Ones, the journalist Jon Mooallem argues that while direct encounters between humans and animals have gotten rarer in contemporary, industrialized society, the ways people relate to and create meaning around nature experiences has shifted over to visual culture. Through zoos, books, pictures, and videos, people work out their relationships to the natural world. This makes nature as much a place of the imagination as something “out there,” away from people and civilization, as the environmental historian William Cronon observed in his influential 1995 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Close connections between humans and nature, in other words, don’t require long treks to remote and undisturbed locations. People form bonds with nature through all kinds of media. The natural world can be found in Emma Marris’ rambunctious garden and children’s stuffed teddy bears.
Explore.org has stated that its mission is to be “a portal into the soul of humanity,” and animal webcams may just lead to this soul. When I sit in front of the computer, along with thousands of other viewers, mesmerized by the bears of Brooks Falls catching salmon, the bears and I are close together, despite being physically far apart. It’s not the same as standing on a viewing platform in Alaska, but the experience is still real.
Originally published at The Atlantic, 22 August 2016. A few dead links updated or pointed at The Wayback Machine.