Google's Underwater 'Street View' Turns Users Into Ocean Explorers

Will the new underwater 'Street View' promote conservation?
Googe Maps and Catlin Seaview Survey let viewers comb the ocean depths. (Photo: Catlin Seaview Survey)
Sep 28, 2012· 1 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Google has aspirations to map the world, and as of this week, they're one step closer to their goal.

The company has released its underwater “Street View,” which enables users to view panoramic images of six of the world’s most stunning coral reefs, all from the comfort of their couches.

“Now, anyone can become the next virtual Jacques Cousteau and dive with sea turtles, fish and manta rays in Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii,” Brian McClendon, Vice President of Google Maps and Earth, wrote in a blog post announcing the program.

The project is a partnership between Google and Catlin Seaview Survey, a major scientific study of coral reefs. Survey members began photographing the Great Barrier Reef this month in a quest to document the world’s marine environments.

Internet surfers can pull up a panorama of a sea turtle swimming among schools of fish, a manta ray gliding toward the sun, or a gorgeous view of the Great Barrier Reef as the sun sets on the horizon.

To capture a single panorama of ocean life, Catlin technicians stitch together up to 50,000 images taken with underwater cameras. The company expects that scientists will be able to use these images to monitor ocean life, particularly the 25 percent of marine species that live in or near coral reefs.

The Google/Catlin partnership has a lot of ocean to cover, but the completed project might be a game-changer.

Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface, but just 5 percent of the oceans have been explored, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This creates what Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress, has called it the ocean’s “image problem.” Beachgoers rarely see more than the surface of the ocean – the glittering blue expanse and colorful sunsets over the horizon.

Because the ocean looks so great on the surface, it can be difficult to understand and accept the enormous challenges that marine environments face, including ocean acidification, overfishing, and habitat destruction. More often than not, a day at the beach leaves us awed by the sea, rather than compelled to preserve the marine life that teems below the surface, sometimes invisible to the naked eye.

“We don’t notice the decades of habitat degradation from coastal development and polluted runoff,” Conathan has written. “We don’t see the microscopic organisms struggling to build their shells and skeletons in acidified water that dissolves them almost as quickly as they grow. We can’t comprehend that the populations of fish and marine life we experience today are such a far cry from the teeming ecosystems considered normal by even our parents and grandparents.”

Does underwater street view have the capacity to change all of that?

It may be too soon to tell whether Google’s virtual dives will aid in ocean conservation efforts. But if it helps citizens and scientists understand more about the natural wonders that exists in the big blue, it will be a start.

Do you think projects like this encourage an appreciation for the environment? Let us know in the Comments.