As scuba divers know, the underwater world is awe-inspiring. And now, thanks to 360-degree photography and virtual-reality technology, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries can introduce this experience to wider audiences on virtual dives. With the launch of a new virtual dive gallery, the underwater treasures that sanctuaries protect are as close as your fingertips.
No longer out of sight and out of mind
Anyone with internet access and a computer or mobile device can view the web-based virtual dive gallery. There is no special app or software.
Visitors to the gallery can get a scuba diver’s view of five national marine sanctuaries: American Samoa, Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks, Gray’s Reef, and Thunder Bay. Through virtual reality, they can navigate through the dive sites much as if they were there in person.
By sharing these underwater experiences, NOAA hopes to show the public the incredible resources within the National Marine Sanctuary system. These virtual dives highlight issues such as marine debris, ocean noise, invasive species, and changes in habitat and animal health. Seeing tangible examples of the issues affecting sanctuary resources puts viewers behind the “diver’s mask,” so to speak. In this way, the office of National Marine Sanctuaries hopes to inspire support of stewardship and conservation goals.
“Because such a small percentage of people in the U.S. are able to scuba dive, we constantly face the challenge of showcasing the underwater beauty and wonders of national marine sanctuaries,” says Mitchell Tartt, chief of the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Conservation Science Division. “These virtual dives are game changers in helping the public and our partners better understand these places.”
Virtual reality for the future
Now that the initial gallery is available, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries will add virtual dives from other sanctuaries. These will include dives in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale, Monterey Bay, Stellwagen Bank, Channel Islands, and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. In the coming year, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries also plans to use virtual imagery to enhance educational exhibits and displays at visitor centers and during interactions with students in schools and classrooms across the country.