An underwater variant of the Google Street View service will from today begin giving web users an unprecedented photographic tour of Australia's Great Barrier Reef – and another reef in Bermuda will soon be getting similar treatment.
Called the Catlin Seaview Survey, the project is a joint venture between Google, the University of Queensland and their sponsor, a multinational insurance firm called the Catlin Group. Part science project and part public outreach, the aim is to learn as much as possible about the reef's state of health from a panoramic underwater photographic and video survey – and let the rest of us enjoy the reef's untrammelled beauty online.
"For the first time in history, we have the technology available to broadcast the findings of an expedition through Google. Millions of people will be able to experience the life, the science and the magic that exists under the surface of our oceans," says the survey's chief scientist, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
So far, only a few sample, limited surveys have been undertaken. These are now online and viewable at seaview.org. The project proper kicks off in September, when three surveys begin at 20 points around the 2300-kilometre long reef. Footage from each site will be posted online as the surveys progress.
These comprise a shallow reef survey using a 360-degree camera on a motorised diver-pulling underwater "scooter", a deep reef survey ploughing the depths between 30 and 100 metres using robotic submarines, and a megafauna survey studying the migratory behaviour of tiger sharks, green turtles and manta rays as seawater temperatures increase.
To give deskbound divers a 360-degree view on the web, the camera work is a real challenge, says Richard Vevers, founder of Underwater Earth, the group handling the diving, submarine robots and all camerawork for the survey.
"Issues with water clarity, low light conditions and light distortion underwater called for a very different camera set-up to Street View. The development of the camera has been carried out independently from Google using underwater photography specialists. The result is a very different panoramic camera," says Vevers.
One camera uses four SLR cameras with extreme fish eye lenses shooting simultaneously to give the full 360-degree image. One of the cameras on the scooter points directly downwards, photographing the surface that the reef is growing from as it travels along.
For those who don't want to steer around a panoramic web page, there are also plans for video capture at each reef location for screening on YouTube – where a bespoke channel is being developed by Google.
"We are also already looking into a 360-degree panoramic video version of the camera, however due to the extremely high volume of data that this involves, further developments are needed in technology before this information could be made accessible online," says Vevers.
The survey data is expected to be useful when the reef is damaged – by ship groundings, cyclones, bleachings and pollution events – and Vevers says the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority is be interested in visualising such damage with the surveying equipment.
After trying out the virtual dive, Buki Rinkevich, a coral reef expert with Israel's National Institute of Oceanography in Haifa, is impressed. "This virtual dive in the reef is a fascinating experience that may well bring their 3D beauty to the public," he says.
In future, he would like to see the Catlin team give viewers the option of revealing more information about marine life, coral polyps and other reef structures in shot to add to the educational aspect.