ISLAMORADA — It's easy to go online and get a 360-degree, ground-level view of almost any street in the United States and throughout the world. Soon, scientists hope people will be able to do the same with coral reefs and other underwater wonders.
U.S. government scientists are learning to use specialized fisheye lenses underwater in the Florida Keys this week in hopes of applying "street view" mapping to research and management plans in marine sanctuaries nationwide. Some of the rotating and panoramic images will be available online as early as this week, including a selection on Google Maps, giving the public a window into ecosystems still difficult and costly to explore for long stretches of time.
It will be like scuba diving from your computer.
About 400,000 images of reefs off Australia and in the Caribbean have been produced so far, but this is the first time the technology is being used in U.S. waters.
The images in the United States will add scale and details to data that have already been collected, and illustrate the successes and failures of coral restoration. They will also help scientists study the effects of warming ocean temperatures, pollution and hurricanes on reefs, officials said.
"This allows people who can't get underwater to understand what we mean by putting up a special preservation area around this particular spot," said Mitchell Tartt, chief of the conservation science division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
The basketball-shaped, triple-lens SVII cameras use the same technology that's used to produce Google Street View images on land. Instead of being placed on top of a car, the 143-pound riggings are tethered to scuba divers and powered through the water by small motors. Smaller versions mounted on tripods are also being tested in the Keys this week.
In images previewed Monday by project director Richard Vevers, endangered elkhorn coral, bleached fields of dead coral and coral nurseries suspended like hanging plants in the Keys' blue waters were in sharp focus as they rotated on screen.
In an hourlong dive, each camera can capture images over an area up to 20 times larger than what's available with traditional underwater photography equipment, Vevers said. The technology also records GPS data and quickly stitches the images together into panoramic or 360-degree views.
The cameras and training in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for six NOAA officials are being paid for as part of a partnership with the Catlin Seaview Survey, funded by the global insurance company Catlin. Google is also a sponsor.
The images produced so far from other Catlin surveys are being uploaded online to the Catlin Global Reef Record. The project will also move to Southeast Asia, Vevers said.
While the main survey continues worldwide, the smaller cameras will be available for targeted projects within NOAA sanctuaries, such as gauging the effectiveness of preservation zones in California's Monterey Bay sanctuary.
The corporate sponsorship offers consistency in equipment, training and data, Vevers said.
Catlin's sustainability director, John Carroll, would only say the cost was "fairly substantial."
The benefit to the Bermuda-based company would also be substantial, he said, because there are a lot of insurable assets that depend on climate change.