A chat with Marc Seelinger, wetland scientist and director of the Swamp School
If there’s water involved, Marc Seelinger may well be nearby. Seelinger is director of the Swamp School
in North Carolina, where he offers classes, consulting and other resources for people with an interest in wetlands management, mitigation or restoration. He also provides services related to other environmental and construction topics. His clients include environmentalists, attorneys, contractors and government officials from places as far afield as Singapore and several West African nations. Some Swamp School programs, such as wetlands delineation and mitigation design, are highly technical. Others address the finer points of frog-spotting at a wetlands day camp for kids
Since last spring, Seelinger has also been responsible for selling many of Wingscapes’ Timelapse PlantCams
to his students and clients. Wingscapes talked with Seelinger recently to learn more about his professional applications for time-lapse photography.
Q: How do your clients use the PlantCam?
MS: One of the things you notice when you’re doing wetlands work is that when you finish a construction project, you have to monitor it, usually for five to seven years. And 99 percent of monitoring is driving out to the site, taking a picture, and then driving home. That’s all it is.
So a year or so ago, I looked at the PlantCam and thought, “These are perfect for exactly what I want to do.” I don’t need action photography. I just need a picture once a day, once a week, or once a month, even. So we’ve been selling them to students and clients for wetlands studies or monitoring. It’s rare to go a week without selling at least a couple. It’s kind of a job-related product for us — the perfect gift for the wetland delineator on your shopping list, ha ha! Most of our customers buy three, four, sometimes even six at a time and put them around their job sites.
I usually bring one to class as a demo for my students and have them take pictures of the class every 15 minutes. That’s kind of fun.
We have students from all over the world taking our classes, and I’ve sold quite a few PlantCams overseas — Australia’s become a popular destination for them recently — as well as to individuals and universities scattered around the United States. Our developer clients like the cameras, too, and some of them actually use the camera to monitor their contractors to make sure they’re working.
Q: What kinds of wetlands images do your clients get with the camera?
MS: Often, they’re time-lapse movies of wetlands regeneration like this
. We were trying to have a contest in which we asked clients to send us their favorite photos or movies. But most of these cameras are used on job sites, so that isn’t necessarily something anyone is going to want to share pictures of.
I did have one student, Aviva Rahmani
, who produced an art-grade movie
with it. Her film had a screening in New York and made the New York Times’ arts section. [Editor’s note: Please watch for our interview with Rahmani in an upcoming issue!]
Q: Do PlantCams being used for wetlands monitoring ever take photographs of things that might not be expected there, whether it’s wildlife or human activity?
MS: Not that anyone has ever told me, although I can envision that it’s probably happened. Most of the time my customers doing monitoring have the camera set up to take pictures at 10 o’clock in the morning or so. The light is good then, but it’s kind of a boring time for much wildlife activity. And since the PlantCam doesn’t have a motion sensor, it wouldn’t go off otherwise.
I’ve been trying to talk to people about the BirdCam 2.0
, though, which has both the time-lapse function plus the motion sensor. I’ve had a couple of people buy them lately just because of that.
Q: Are there particular issues that you or your customers face when using the camera in remote wetlands locations?
MS: I have had folks tell me they’ve had security issues, but the PlantCam is only $79, so if it gets stolen, it’s not very expensive. The general view is that other cameras on the market, such as those used by hunters, are a lot more expensive. But I have had customers disguise the PlantCam, such as by putting it in a birdhouse — that’s one of the more clever ones. Since you’re not worried about a motion sensor, you can just set the timer and cover everything but the lens.
I also have been playing around with ways to make the camera completely self-sufficient. Often our customers will set the camera up and essentially go out to the site once a month, change the batteries, swap out the memory cards, and then reset the camera to continue monitoring. For a wetlands project, they may be paying a biologist to do that, and if the biologist has a three- to four-hour drive out to the site and another three to four hours back, you’re looking at $1,000 just for one monitoring event — and you might have to do that weekly.
You can buy a lot of hardware for $1,000. So I’ve been working with the idea of using an Eye-fi™ data card
and hooking it up to a solar panel and Verizon MiFi™
, which is essentially their mobile wireless internet hotspot. It can all be hooked up to a little box and tied it to a tree. Five devices can feed into the MiFi, which would upload directly to a website — so you don’t even have to go the job site to get the photos, which is really cool. A lot of job sites don’t have power, phone, or internet connections, but as long as you have 3G mobile broadband service, this solves the problem. We’re still playing around with that.
Q: That sounds terrific! Are there any camera features or other Wingscapes products you’re especially excited about?
MS: I was excited when the solar power panel
came out. We do custom installations for some customers, and sometimes that means coming up with Rube Goldberg solutions that look a little rough. I was looking for an alternate power source that didn’t involve duct tape. The solar panel is a nice accessory I hope to also sell.
We also have a certain group of people, big, burly contractors, for whom the name “PlantCam” was a little too girly, for lack of a better word. The name PlantCam just doesn’t seem to work for them. So Wingscapes’ new, black Timelapse ProjectCam
will appeal more to a certain group of my customers. I was actually thinking of having a little fun with it, as in, “This is the time-lapse camera for real men.”
Q: What’s on the horizon for the Swamp School?
A: We’re ramping up our online programs, adding some training classes, and getting ready for 2011. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has some new programs and rules under the Food Security Act, and we’re helping educate their folks, their attorneys, and the farm community for that. They know about agriculture, but many of them have never dealt with a wetland before.
I’ve also been asked to put together a program for the Korean government. I was supposed to be in Korea this summer but things got a little messy over there.
Countries have almost an environmental epiphany at some point. As the country develops, they go through an industrial revolution, essentially. The country becomes polluted, and they realize they can’t do it that way. Eventually it catches up to them, and the environmental impact starts costing them money. The environment and economy can’t supplant each other. You have to have a balance.
Once they have that “aha” moment, they start to seek training, and that’s one of The Swamp School’s niches. China’s on the cusp; we’re waiting for China to come to us. So that’s on the horizon for us.
Q: Good luck! Any last comments about the PlantCam or Wingscapes?
MS: One thing I have to say is that the folks at Wingscapes have fantastic customer service. It’s been great to find a company like that. One of my customers had some technical issues with a camera that leaked, and Wingscapes was kind enough to send her a brand new one, no questions asked. They’re great.
The things we’ve worked out to sell the cameras have been wonderful, but they’ve also been very good to my customers.
It’s our pleasure, Marc. Thanks for helping Wingscapes serve those customers and for taking the time to tell us about their unusual uses of the PlantCam