Wallowing and snorting as they jockey for position on the rocks, the 2-ton walruses aren't the prettiest reality show stars.
But two cameras installed at the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary off Alaska's southwest coast are giving scientists and Web surfers alike the chance to watch the mammals rest and play in their natural environment.
Joe Meehan, a Fish & Game lands and refuges coordinator, said the "walrus cams" on Round Island in the Bering Sea provide an essential research tool for wildlife biologists and entertainment for wildlife enthusiasts.
"Monitoring walrus populations is a difficult and expensive task that requires observers at each remote location," Meehan said. "Web cameras may ultimately allow for more accurate and economical walrus counts."
The department has staff on the island counting walruses every day.
Web users see a live stream from the cameras set a quarter of a mile apart above the shore. The cameras look down on the rocky beach and catch the action of a half-dozen or more Pacific walruses in their everyday lives.
In North America, the Pacific walrus inhabits only remote areas of the Bering and Chukchi seas, according to the Alaska SeaLife Center Web page. Therefore, only the few people who live in or visit the region can observe the walruses in their natural habitat firsthand.
Walrus counts on the islands vary significantly from year to year, Meehan said. In 2000, about 8,500 were counted. This year the highest count so far is 2,300.
The lower numbers are probably not a sign of a declining population, but many have likely relocated to abandoned haulouts in Bristol Bay that were used through the mid-1900s until commercial harvesting drove the walruses away, he said.
The main focus of the $40,000 project is to educate and promote conservation, Meehan said. Along with the walruses, the islands are home to sea lions and about a quarter of a million sea birds.