The One Time Electronic Equipment Absolutely Belongs on the Ocean Floor

Like an underwater Google Street View, a new project studies our declining coral reefs by capturing them up-close, on film.

Threats to Coral Reefs

New technology can give a much more detailed view into the demise, and resurgence, of coral life. (Photo: Jeff Hunter/Getty Images)

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

It is hard to find clearer waters in the Western Hemisphere than those off the coast of Belize. During an hour-long ride in a rubber Zodiac moving fast over the light blue shallows—whether headed for Turneffe, Lighthouse or Glovers reef—these waters would seem to be among the least troubled on the planet.

But looks can be deceiving.

It is no secret that reefs around the world are at great risk: Estimates of how many have already been lost range from 40 to 80 percent.

Despite the aquamarine waters, the famed reefs off Belize have not escaped harm. Across the Caribbean, it’s estimated that 80 percent of the coral has been lost during the past half century thanks to overfishing, pollution and a changing climate, which is heating up the ocean and turning it more acidic. A 2009 survey off Belize showed its reef badly damaged, with up to 75 percent of it at risk of dying off.

Thanks to an innovative new study—the Caitlin Seaview Survey—evidence this summer suggests the damage to the reefs off Belize may have leveled off, and they are even showing some signs of a comeback.

Given the reefs’ status as “the canaries in the coal mines” regarding the overall health of our ocean, it’s imperative that we learn as much about them as possible. 

The Caitlin survey, funded by the international insurance group of the same name, has set out to provide the most extensive look yet. Its goal is to provide a baseline record of the health of the world’s corals today, using sophisticated new tools, particularly 360-degree panoramic cameras.

Key to the survey’s success is a high-test underwater camera the Caitlin team is calling the SVII. Custom-designed lenses on three camera bodies, mounted at the end of a six-foot pole and propelled by a motorized sled, capture a 360-degree look at both the coral and the surrounding sea life.

Back onshore, teamed with the Scripps Institute of Technology in San Diego and Google, all those hundreds of thousands of images will be knitted together in GPS-marked 3-D to produce a real-life look at what’s going on below the surface.

Utilizing new computer tools similar to the facial recognition software used to track terrorists, the goal is to analyze underwater life with 90 percent accuracy—and at a speed that’s 100 times faster than was previously possible.

The focus is on coral coverage and species diversity, which will help decipher the overall health of the reefs.

The survey began in September 2012 along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where the team surveyed 32 reefs along the coast and out into the more remote Coral Sea. From sea level down to 400 feet below, the team cataloged more than 100,000 GPS-marked photos that will soon be available for anyone to see online.

Importantly, all of the information gathered by the Caitlin team will be available to any scientist working anywhere in the world.

Based on the success of the Australian reef survey, the team expanded its reach to include a “rapid assessment” of reefs around the world. The reefs off the Americas are next, with surveys already completed off Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Belize.

“Rapid” in this case is loosely defined; the team now says it will spend the next few years surveying reefs off the coasts off Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and Middle East.

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