Aquariums closed to visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic have reported big increases in traffic to their exhibit webcams as people turn to the underwater world for stress relief.
Since Monterey Bay aquarium in California closed to the public in March, visits to its website have tripled compared to the previous year. Nearly 80% of traffic goes to its 10 live webcams, with the sea otter, jellyfish and shark exhibits proving the most popular.
“People watch them religiously,” said Dana Allen-Greil, Monterey Bay aquarium’s director of digital strategy. “They email us and say ‘I eat breakfast every morning with the sea otters’ – it becomes part of their daily life.”
Georgia aquarium recorded an approximate 3,000% increase in daily traffic to its webcams at the start of lockdown in mid-March, in particular to its 6.3m-gallon whale shark tunnel.
A spokeswoman for the National aquarium in Baltimore said it saw “a large spike” to its blacktip reef shark, coral reef and jellyfish live streams, with anecdotal evidence that visitors were seeking stress relief.
Laura Reeve, a middle-school teacher in Santa Cruz, CA, said she had incorporated Monterey Bay aquarium’s webcams into her suggested self-care routines for students, alongside breathing exercises.
“Students were worried and anxious, and quite a few of them told me that watching the webcams helped them focus and calm down.”
Teachers had found them helpful too, Reeve said: “I regularly use the Open Ocean and Bay View webcams myself to help with relaxation.”
Research by the National Marine aquarium, the University of Plymouth and the University of Exeter published in the Environment & Behavior journal in 2015 found that viewing aquarium displays led to noticeable reductions in blood pressure and heart rate.
The study’s authors said it was the first robust evidence that “doses” of exposure to underwater settings could have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing.
A more recent review of aquariums’ restorative role, in 2018, concluded: “In today’s increasingly stressful world, quick and easy access to restorative environments that promote positive emotions and help reduce stress may be essential, especially for people who have few, if any, chances to engage with the natural world.”
During the Covid-19 shutdown, Monterey Bay aquarium has embraced this as a public service, producing a series of guided meditations – or “MeditOceans” – set to soothing footage of jellyfish or breaking waves.
“It just felt like the right thing to put out in the world,” said Allen-Greil, adding that she had been told of frontline hospital workers incorporating it into their workdays.
Monterey Bay has also recognised the boom in working from home with its own instrumental music mixes: “two hours of squid to work/study/relax to”. (Its jellyfish webcam, meanwhile, was highlighted on Reddit as one of “the best links to click while you’re stoned”.)
With 1 million followers on Facebook and now 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, social media has long been central to the aquarium’s mission to inspire ocean conservation. Its first webcams were installed in 2001.
But with no date set for reopening, Monterey Bay’s only presence during the pandemic is online, and at a time of great financial need. “It’s a lot of pressure right now to be the public face of the aquarium,” said Allen-Greil.
The institution is facing a $45m (£34m) shortfall this year and 174 staff have already lost their jobs: “We have needed more than ever this summer to use these tools for fundraising and to make clear our need.”
Monterey Bay’s call for its followers to appeal for emergency congressional funding for aquariums yielded 10,000 responses, as well as $27,000 in direct giving.
The aquarium has been exploring new potential sources of revenue, such as educational talks held in the world of the game Animal Crossing, live-streamed over Twitch; and YouTube tours behind the scenes of the jellyfish and cephalopod exhibits.
“We’ve got a ton of requests like, ‘Can you just Zoom my grandmother on her birthday and feed a penguin? I’ll pay’,” said Allen-Greil. “We’re thinking a lot about what that means for us.”
Though online initiatives alone would not save the aquarium, she said, “once we’re ready to open, we’re confident that we’ll have people wanting to come.”
Until then: “it’s about bringing the ocean to people in their daily lives.”
Where to watch
Visitors take photographs of dolphins as they swim by at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images
The National aquarium has three webcams: Blacktip reef sharks, Jellies invasion and Pacific coral reef.
Spot more than 50 species of fish in this 100ft tunnel.
Choose from 10 live webcams and tune in at the listed times for narrated feedings.
Explore.org is the largest live nature cam network, with 21 underwater streams.
Boasts round-the-clock surveillance of its penguin exhibit – above and below water.
• This article was amended on 21 August 2020 to correct the caption of the main image. An earlier version mistakenly said it showed a great white shark; it is a hammerhead shark.