Starting out as something of a tech whizz might not seem like the most direct route towards working with polar bears, but for Polar Bears International's Director of Field Operations, BJ Kirschhoffer, a childhood spent tinkering with retired parts set him up nicely for a life of filming one of Earth's most charismatic species.
Working in a team, Kirschhoffer uses his insight to overcome the complexities of establishing and maintaining live camera feeds (in association with Explore.org) right out in the sticks facing weather cold enough to claim a few digits. Fortunately, as he tells us here, he's managed to keep all his fingers and toes – but the perils of working with unpredictable electronics, weather, and polar bears don't end there.
How did you come to work at Polar Bears International?
For sure, my path has been wandering – I don't think I would have ever guessed that I would be working with polar bears. My grandfather and my uncle were electrical engineers, so as a kid they would often give me motors, transformers, and retired computers. I'd play around with those and eventually set up some early networks at the house.
Unbeknownst to me, these would be some of the most important things that I would learn and use later on in my career. A lot of what I work with is circuits, networking, and computers to make all the equipment to do our research work. So, here we are, some 30 years later I’m still tinkering with things, but a long way from a hardware store – you know, up in the Arctic.
I went to Montana State University and studied photography, which gave me a little background in cameras and understanding the physics of how they work, building composition, and I worked for a wildlife photographer during my time there. He opened me up to the world of conservation as well as wildlife photography. After my time as a student came to an end, he said "I’ve got some folks at Polar Bears International that I think you should meet," and that's how I came here.
What kind of equipment do you work with?
I came on board to Polar Bears International at a time when we were contracting with an external guy that had built his own cameras from scratch. They were fairly complex, multiple different pieces put together, all kind of sitting out in the landscape and maybe not weatherized as well as it could be. These were early pan tilt zoom cameras that just output a video signal, and then he had a kind of a basic video encoder that would compact the video.
So, I came on and helped make that stuff work through wireless internet, shooting signal long distances over open tundra. There are no outlets obviously, so we have to make our own power, and I helped to keep that stuff online. What we’re doing now is designing a lot of our own systems to do our own research and then working heavily with Explore.org to set up their equipment too, which means we stream these cool live cameras all over the world.
What insights have these live cameras delivered?
The Arctic is a very remote place, so it’s harder to get people connected with it. I think most people have heard of polar bears, but actually witnessing everything that makes a polar bear a polar bear is more difficult. This is an animal that really is tied to the sea ice, without which you won’t have polar bears. Building that connection is a big step, and the live cams can help do that by bringing people into the environment. We've got audio, we've got video, and people can tune in at their leisure to see what it’s really like out there.
We've seen really neat things. Polar bears are large, smart animals – but when there's humans around, you're influencing their behavior. When you remove yourself and you put a camera out there, we see all kinds of goofy stuff.
Some of their behaviors almost look like dogs playing. They find something on the beach, they're going to toss it around and play with it, maybe roll on it. One of the scientists we work with describes polar bears as being like large dogs with little tails.
So, I think it's both a neat way to promote conservation, by getting people to fall in love with this place, but it’s also just a nice way to let people enjoy nature. It gives them a chance to check out another place on this planet that maybe they don't have the resources to go visit.
What are some of the less glamorous aspects to your job?
There’s a lot of mosquitoes in the Arctic, and the good time to work on these cameras is the summertime because then you're not worried about losing your fingers to the cold, but the bugs are unbelievable. It’s impressive, the number of mosquitoes, black flies, and all these other things that I don't even know what they're called. They fly around and try to bite you. We have to wear gloves and tuck our pants into our socks so that they can't crawl up, and it’s getting pretty hot at that point.
What’s are some of your proudest achievements?
When we first started, there was no cell phone service. Now there is, but there's not enough cell phone network bandwidth to stream what we stream. So, we had to create our giant wireless network to be able to put a streaming camera on the bottom of a boat and put it out in the Arctic and let it stream 24 hours a day.
We've got these home-built cameras we're making on Raspberry Pi computers and we put them out in the springtime on polar bear dens, and anytime we can get a polar bear behavior on one of these it is a huge accomplishment.
It takes three organizations a year of planning using home-built cameras that can withstand the Arctic, but when all of these things come together and you see that polar bear image on the screen, it is truly rewarding.
Any memorable missteps or hairy moments?
The Arctic's a dangerous place to be and I think the elements are always something that's on your mind. You’ve got to make sure you're prepared because things happen fast, and changes happen quickly. I fortunately still have all my fingers and toes, so I see that as a big accomplishment.
Whenever you got your head down doing work, someone else is always looking at the horizon to see what's coming over the next bend, to protect against any kind of bear attack or anything like that.
Of course, there have been incidents. I slid down a mountainside last year in Svalbard accidentally. Fortunately, I was able to stop myself but that was a little bit hairy.
If someone’s into tech and wants to move into conservation, what would you recommend they do?
First of all, I would say to read a lot. There are tons of resources out there on the web, lots of people pitching on the tech side, and if you see a researcher working on something that interests you, or you see a group that's doing something cool, just email them.
Secondly, if you don't have the skill set yet for a specific job, the University of YouTube is a pretty powerful thing. Just about anything you want to learn is out there on the internet. Or you can go to formal training, learn to be a programmer, that kind of thing.
I think staying curious and continuing to tinker is so important, and once you do get in involved with some group you’ve got to arrive early and stay late. Just work your butt off and people will pick up on that and you'll be asked to do more and more.
You can take a look at some of Polar Bears International and Explore.org's polar bear live cameras here.