How to livestream the majesty of nature from your couch

Check in with the animal kingdom this Earth Day.

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A bison stands in front of Mount Moran, north of Jackson Hole Wyoming
Brian Evans via Getty Images

Happy Earth Day, everybody! Today we celebrate the Pale Blue Marble herself, the only home in this solar system we’ve got (so far). And even though the COVID-19 quarantine has shrunken our individual worlds to roughly the size of our apartments, we can still get out (virtually, at least) and commune with the natural world around us -- even if that nature is happening on the other side of the planet. All you need is an internet connection.

Livestreaming has been around since the early days of the internet. In 1993, the band Severe Tire Damage became the first music act in history to perform live on the web. Since then streaming has spread across the internet, filling niches wherever the need for live video arises, such as sports, entertainment (including the “adult” variety) and politics. Since the dawn of the social media era, livestreaming has come into its own, a ubiquitous and wildly-popular feature on the industry’s biggest platforms.

These live feeds have also proven a boon to scientific outreach efforts, enabling people from around the globe to virtually visit world-famous zoos, aquariums, national parks and monuments (even low earth orbit!) from the comfort of their homes and classrooms. 

The first name in nature livestreams, however, is Explore.org. Touted as the world’s largest live nature network, this multimedia company hosts more than 160 feeds, as well as hundreds of films and thousands of photographs. Launched in 2011, the site streamed more than 11.2 million hours of video in 2019, Courtney Johnson, Explore’s social-media director, told Outside in March. This web portal has all the animals from african elephants to bald eagles, bobcats to penguins. Heck, I just spent 15 relaxing minutes watching sheep butt heads at a sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. But for the most part, unless it’s feeding time or they’re feeling particularly frisky, the animals tend to just lay about and snooze. Though, let’s be honest here, that’s exactly what most of us humans are doing during the lockdown too.

Zoos, both around the country and abroad, have also jumped onto the livestreaming bandwagon. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, for example, carries five feeds from its most popular enclosures: lions and elephants and giant panda bears, oh my! The zoo also features live looks into the baby cheetah pen and, my personal favorite, a feed of the naked mole rat exhibit. Did you know that they’re practically impervious to pain, as well as cancer, and live in colonies with queen-led social hierarchies resembling those of ants and bees?

Similarly, the San Diego Zoo offers a number of livestreams including for its great apes, a troop of baboons, koalas and burrowing owls. There’s also a stream of the California Condor Breeding Facility ( california condors had nearly gone extinct 40 years ago). In 1987, the final 27 remaining wild individuals were captured and transferred to San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. In the years since, the population has rebounded to more than 440 birds, 160 of which have been successfully reintroduced into the wild. 

If the heavyweights of the animal kingdom are more your speed, head over to the Memphis Zoo for a live look at its hippo pool and elephant paddock or check out the rhino yard at the Houston Zoo. Or, if you prefer the view from down under, the Melbourne Zoo offers feeds of its koalas, echidnas, parrots, and snow leopard cubs. 

And should you feel that the world is getting to be just too much and need to find a moment of zen, take a peek at Chewy and Mo, the resident Hoffman’s two-toed sloths at the Hattiesburg Zoo. In fact, a 2017 study out of UC Berkeley (which was funded by the BBC) noted that after watching clips from Planet Earth II, viewers had “increases in feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement, and curiosity, but that it also acted to reduce feelings of tiredness, anger, and stress,” so it deinitely can’t hurt.

The Cincinnati Zoo is also offering a helpful service to overwhelmed parents during this quarantine. Every day at 3pm ET, the zoo will take viewers on a “home safari,” highlighting one of the resident animals and giving kids a related assignment. Even if you can’t tune in live, a copy of the video is subsequently archived on the zoo’s YouTube page for easy bingeing. 

Next, let’s head under the sea. Like their above-water counterparts, aquariums have embraced livestreaming in recent years, though perhaps none more so than the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The facility hosts myriad feeds featuring penguins, otters (with narrated daily feedings, squee!), sharks, moon jellies, and the bay’s natural kelp forest. The aquarium is even offering free virtual tours for Animal Crossing players.         

The Georgia aquarium also offers a variety of feeds including those for beluga whales, california sea lions, piranhas, and puffins. Similarly, the National Aquarium streams its Blacktip and Pacific Coral reefs, as well as a live jellies cam.    

Calvin and Hobbes
Bill Watterson

Not everybody enjoys seeing animals housed in artificial habitats, so for those looking for a bit more nature in your natural settings, why not visit a national park? It is National Park Week, after all. Virtually wander around Crater Lake or tour Virgin Islands National Park, watch the trees blossom on the National Mall or take in the quiet solitude of Paterson’s Great Falls. And if those aren’t tall enough for you, there’s always Yellowstone Falls -- not to mention the Old Faithful live cam

Explore offers an especially gorgeous feed of the Northern Lights. You might even spot a polar bear or two. Later this fall the site will launch its annual Fat Bear Week which, after this quarantine lifts, we’ll all be able to appreciate just a little bit more. 

It’s still too early to know if we’ll see a Covid-related baby boom, but the outbreak certainly hasn’t hampered our national symbols from getting busy. Lady Independence and Sir Hatcher II of the American Eagle Foundation’s Smoky Mountain division recently hatched a pair of eaglets. The AEF operates five such nest cameras around the country -- there’s even one in Dollywood. Similarly, a pair of peregrine falcons who have made UC Berkeley their home have just laid a pair of eggs and are currently incubating them. Fingers crossed!

Of course, the only thing better than witnessing the miracle of birth is, without a doubt, puppies. Even better than puppies? Puppies training to be service dogs. Even better than service pups? Retired service pups lounging around their communal gathering room. There’s also a rescue kitten live feed but we all know their cuteness is a lie.

Then again, if somehow, between all of these feeds and channels, you still can’t find the connection to nature that you’re craving, there’s always Zooms with alpacas: 

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