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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dive underwater to explore Great Barrier Reef

Google’s Streetview -- which gives a 360 degree panoramic view of landmarks and such prominent places -- isn’t available for India, though it is in many countries enabling us to virtually walk through cities and villages of the world; and also see, for example, Swiss Alps, Amazon River and London’s National Gallery.

Soon, we will have an oceanic variant, called Seaview. Thanks to technology, we will be able to dive underwater and get a breathtaking view of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Google in collaboration with the Catlin Seaview Project will help us explore the Great Barrier Reef -- the world’s largest coral reef system located in Coral Sea off Queensland in the northeast of Australia.

Coral reefs -- the rainforests of the sea -- are underwater structures consisting mainly of calcium carbonate secreted by corals, a type of marine animals. They have many ecological benefits: serving as habitats to aquatic organisms, besides protecting small islands from being gobbled up sea. It’s estimated that 50% of coral reefs have been destroyed due to pollution and global warming.

Catlin Seaview Project is a scientific expedition aimed at carrying out the first comprehensive study to document and reveal the composition and health of coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef across a depth of up to 100 metres. Ten Australian scientists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University are at work on the project. The pilot studies start next month, and the main expedition will be from September to December 2012 with some follow-up expeditions late in 2013.

During a recent Google Hangout -- a live audio-video link from underwater on the Great Barrier Reef -- Richard Vevers, founder of the Underwater Earth and Seaview Project, explained the objectives and challenges of the scientific expedition. Due to limitation of time, some of the questions from this correspondent were answered via email:

Excerpts:

How different is Seaview be from Streetview?The survey team will travel at approximately 3-4 km per hour on underwater scooters taking images continuously every few seconds which will then be stitched together. The length of the dives are limited to 1 to 1.5 hours due to battery life. There is only one visual team working on the Great Barrier Reef; however the plan is to roll the project out globally using multiple teams surveying locations all around the world. The roll-out model is similar to that of Streetview mapping.

What details will the mapping cover?

The expedition has 3 elements -- a shallow reef survey, a deep reef survey and a megafauna survey. The shallow reef survey will focus on creating a broad-scale visual baseline study of the reef using a scooter mounted 360 camera rig. The deep reef survey will be a detailed scientific study looking into the health and biodiversity of this little-known ecosystem. The megafauna survey will look into the movement of megafauna in relation to factors such as ocean surface temperature.  

How much surface will be covered by the survey?

The shallow reef survey will cover the largest area -- 20 locations along the 2,300 km reef with 4 x 4 km surveys carried out at each location on average. We hope to reveal about 300 km of the reef that people will then be able to explore. 

How do you overcome the challenges under water?The biggest obstacles are the natural weather and water conditions -- we ideally need good sunlight at least average visibility. Another limitation is driver fatigue and we are already investigating the possibility of using remote-operated vehicles in the not-too-distant future. 

What are the threats to the reefs and how will this project help save them?We have lost approximately 50% of coral reefs in the last few decades, mainly due to pollution, overfishing (using destructive practices) and global warming. The idea behind the Catlin Seaview Survey is to reveal the environment, life and science of the reef so that people become more aware of the state of our oceans and these potential threats.

Beyond the panoramic view, what will Seaview provide online?We are looking to analyse the 50,000 images from the survey using image recognition software so that the composition of each reef location can be analysed. We are also looking into adding layers of additional content on some of the images when displayed online that will allow viewers to discover exactly what all the different forms of marine life in the images are.  

When can we expect to see the Seaview on Google Maps and Google Earth?You will be able to see Seaview images through Panoramio in Google Maps and Google Earth from September when the first pilot information will become available online. The images will also be available through the expedition website, catlinseaviewsurvey.com so that people can have a full virtual dive experience online. More and more images will be uploaded over time as the surveys are completed and the data is processed.

(This article appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

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