Google Oceans: Dive The World’s Coral Reefs Without Ever Getting Wet

No cyber-experience could ever live up to the real thing, but hopefully these virtual “dives” will encourage people to take a leap into the underwater world.

By Kenzo Kieran

The ocean is quite literally our planet’s lifeblood, covering more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, driving weather, regulating temperature and ultimately supporting all living organisms — not to mention offering some incredible sights and experiences, both from the surface and underwater.

It’s mind-boggling to think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of ocean exploration. We know an estimated 50 to 80 percent of all life on Earth is found in the ocean and that the oceans contain 99 percent of the living space on the planet, yet we’ve explored less than 10 percent of that space. Currently, scientists have named and classified around 1.5 million species, and estimates are as few as 2 million and as many as 50 million more species are yet to be found and properly classified. Thanks to recent advances in technology and humankind’s insatiable curiosity, a more nuanced view of the ocean is becoming available to us each day.

Google Oceans

Back in September 2012, the Catlin Seaview Survey, in partnership with Google, launched a new feature in which you could explore panoramic views of various underwater environments. They started with the iconic Great Barrier Reef, surveying 32 representative reefs along its entire length and into the Coral Sea. The idea was to create virtual maps of our oceans and document these fragile ecosystems as they change over time. Small teams of divers with three cameras on each underwater vehicle collected these images over a period of six months, capturing images every four seconds, which are stitched together into 360-degree panoramas similar to that of Google Earth. Since the original survey, the Google Oceans project has mapped other popular sites around the world including Hawaii, the Philippines, Bermuda, the Galapagos, Komodo, Monaco and Mexico, with no shortage of sites to come.

The goal is to carry out a rapid assessment of reefs and other oceanic environments around the world and create a scientific-baseline record to monitor global change. The high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic vision allows scientists to monitor change over time, offering both them and policy makers better insight into the issues facing reefs and what actions we must take to protect them. It’s also hoped that this project will spark interest and engage the public at large, allowing access to a world that few get to see. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to ocean conservation is the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. A whopping 99 percent of people on the planet have never, and will never, go for a dive. How can we understand our impact on the ocean if we never knew what it looked like in the first place? Hopefully this project will allow non-divers a chance to see what they’re missing.

Scientist estimate we’ve already lost 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs over just the last 30 years due to pollution, destructive fishing practices, ocean acidification and climate change. Coral reefs generate an estimated $375 billion for the global economy and are some of the most valuable and diverse ecosystems on the planet. They are also extremely delicate and thus vulnerable to both local and global threats. Losing our reefs will affect over 500 million people globally who directly rely on reefs for food, tourism and coastal protection; losing them would be nothing short of a tragedy for us all.

There’s no doubt we can still rescue our oceans but we must act now. As the Catlin Seaview Survey moves forward, it will continue to survey the world’s shallow reefs as well as conduct surveys of the deep using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). The project has thus far surveyed 20 countries, covering 411 miles (662km) and has generated 389,000 panoramas. The hundreds of thousands of images recorded and other data collected are publicly accessible through the Catlin Global Reef Record. As quoted on their website, “The Catlin Global Reef Record will, for the first time in history, make ocean change plainly visible for all to see. It’s a game changer.”

Those of us who dive know that no cyber-experience could ever live up to the real thing, but hopefully these virtual “dives” will encourage people to step out of their comfort zone and take a leap into the underwater world. In educating and engaging the masses who either can’t or don’t want to take that plunge, this survey may help create an army of armchair ocean advocates. Famed ocean researcher Sylvia Earle said, “With knowing comes caring, and with caring, there’s hope.” By overcoming the barriers of restriction, fear, lack of income or opportunity, people around the world can now know what a living coral reef looks like with nothing more than the click of a button, and with that knowing, let’s hope caring is not far behind.