'Virtual' divers can explore ocean reef

Feb. 23, 2012 at 5:29 PM
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BRISBANE, Australia, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Google Earth users can soon take "virtual" scuba dives onto Australia's Great Barrier Reef through panoramas of underwater landscapes, researchers say.

A research survey will map the Great Barrier Reef and allow virtual divers to experience the unique ecosystem through thousands of 360-degree, high-definition views of underwater vistas in the same way Google's street view takes users through urban environments.

Coral reefs and their marine life will be photographed and mapped by a pair of unmanned submarine cameras during the survey, beginning in September sponsored by Google, non-governmental organizations and British insurance company Catlin.

"Most people who dive the Barrier Reef do so to depths up to about 20 meters. But 93 percent of the reef lies at between 30-100 meters, where light still penetrates. These areas are rarely if ever dived," project chief scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

"Our specially made James Bond-like submersibles will capture for first time in history the unique marine life down there -- and whether it is under threat from climate change," he said.

The images will be posted on Panoramio, Google Earth, Google Maps and be seen via a custom-made 360-degree viewer, he said.

"We will seek the global audience's help in assessing the health and composition of the reef," Hoegh-Guldberg said. "The public can help us scientists study in close detail the size of the corals and the number of fish, and spot things like coral bleaching and unique breeding habits.

"Hopefully, virtual diving will raise awareness about climate change," he said.

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