After almost a decade offline, the Walrus Cam is back.
The live video stream — complete with a soundtrack of lapping waves, keening birds and the occasional walrus grunt — shows hundreds of walruses flopping around (but mostly lying on the beach) on Round Island, a blip of land that's part of Alaska's Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary.
Back in 2005, webcam views of the beach were so popular with Internet users that the traffic occasionally crashed the server, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had to shut the service down due to lack of funds.
"It's something we couldn't do," Maria Gladziszewski, acting deputy director of the department's division of wildlife conservation, told NBC News. "It's certainly tens of thousands of dollars a year, and maybe more. We didn't even look into that because we couldn't afford it."
Then Explore.org, a nonprofit organization founded by philanthropist Charles Annenberg Weingarten, came into the picture. Explore.org operates a wide spectrum of high-definition wildlife webcams — including cameras that keep an eye on the brown bears of Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Over the course of the past year, officials worked out an arrangement under which Explore.org would operate the Walrus Cam, get the high-def signal back from the remote island and put it online. The stream went active last week.
"It was quite a feat," Gladziszewski said.
Explore.org is providing live chat capabilities with park rangers to answer viewers' questions — and Gladziszewski said the Annenberg Foundation is also contributing $100,000 over the next two years to support the state's wildlife monitoring operation and visitor program on Round Island.
Other donors to the cause include the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Pacific Walrus Conservation Fund, plus zoos and aquariums across the country. The donations are being supplemented by a federal grant to study Steller sea lions on the island.
During the summer and early fall, thousands of male walruses make their way from the receding Arctic sea ice to "haul out" onto Round Island and other Alaskan shores. They hang around to feed and rest up after the mating season, while the females head north with their calves.
That means it's prime time for researchers to study walrus migration patterns — and for the rest of us to watch walruses as they loaf on the beach. "Viewers can expect to see these male social animals in their leisurely habitat sleeping, being playful with one another, fighting, and even partaking in occasional self-stimulation," Tonya Fleetwood, a spokeswoman for Explore.org, said in an email.
Gladziszewski said the webcams will be turned off in the fall, when Alaskan natives from villages around Bristol Bay hunt the walruses under the terms of an agreement with state and federal agencies.
Check out Explore.org for the Walrus Cam as well as 70 other wildlife webcams around the globe.