Australia's Great Barrier Reef has been opened to an audience of more than one billion people worldwide as Google launches a virtual tour of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Users can log on to Street View on Google Maps and Google Earth and explore high-resolution, 360-degree images of the reef that are being gathered as part of the Catlin Seaview Survey, which documents the health of coral reefs around the world.
A diver operates the SVII, a camera mounted on an underwater scooter. Photo: Catlin Seaview Survey
"The project is as much about the engagement as it is about the science," project director Richard Vevers told Fairfax from Monterey, California, where he officially launched the survey at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in front of an audience of scientists and filmmakers that included James Cameron.
The images - there are currently 15,000 and will eventually be up to 50,000 - were captured using the world's first tablet-operated underwater camera, the SVII, which incorporates three individual cameras that sit on an underwater scooter operated by a diver.
"It's a completely unique piece of technology," says Vevers. "On a typical run we'll take over 1000 panoramas, which are then stitched together to produce this virtual dive experience.''
Google Maps goes underwater
Heron Bommie, Heron Island Photo: © Catlin Seaview Survey
As well as bringing the reef to life on screens for the general public, the survey also aims to discover if coral reefs around the world will be able to survive climate change.
"The possibilities of what we will discover about coral reefs are almost endless,'' said the project's chief scientist, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.
"Right now, information on how these endangered ecosystems are responding to climate change is incredibly important, given that almost 25 per cent of marine species live in and around coral reefs."
The images made available today come from the shallow reef survey, which uses technology to assess the amount of coral cover and other marine life living on the reefs. The deep reef survey, which explores reefs at a depth of 30 to 100 metres, could hold clues as to whether coral reefs can survive rapid climate change, and may even discover new species.
"There are so many species that are yet to be discovered in this zone," says Vevers. "We'll be going to places that no one has ever seen before or visited before - it's a very exciting area to research."
The partnership between Google and Catlin takes advantage of the billion unique users of Google Maps every month. People can view footage captured on the reef in Hangouts on Catlin's Google+ page, which has 1.4 million followers. The first live nighttime dive will take place on Thursday at 3.30am Australian Eastern Standard Time.
"It's an incredibly immersive experience," says Nabil Naghdy, product manager for Google Maps in Australia. "It feels like you're in the set of Finding Nemo."
The survey, which has been funded in excess of $1 million, began on September 16 and has so far covered six locations on the Great Barrier Reef. It will continue on to 20 individual reefs along the 2300km reef system until the end of the year; with other locations such as Hawaii and the Philippines to be surveyed next year.