Mapping Coral Reefs

Anyone with a computer today can get online and use Google Street View to go on a sightseeing tour of the U.S. and most parts of the world. A new venture has taken that idea of mapping and applied it to underwater imagery of coral reefs. It has already been used in the Caribbean and Australia, but for the first time it was used in the Florida Keys this past August.

The SVII camera technology, using special fish eye lenses for underwater use is very similar to what Google uses to create Street view images on land. The difference is instead of being car mounted the 143 pound camera rigs are tethered to scuba divers and powered through the water with small motors. Each camera in an hour long dive can capture images over an area up to 20 times larger than what’s available with traditional underwater photography.

In mid-August, NOAA and Catlin Seaview joined forces to shoot photos in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary near Key Largo. The images that were produced included endangered elkhorn coral, bleached fields of dead coral and coral nurseries suspended in the Key’s blue waters. These images will be analysed by the University of Queensland in Australia. The photos will then be compared to those taken in the future to see if coral reefs have improved or regressed over time.

NOAA officials hope to apply the street view mapping to research and management plans in marine sanctuaries nationwide. In addition to the science, they also believe that it will be an effective tool to educate the public about the nation’s 13 marine sanctuaries and gain support for restoration programs.

The venture partners and sponsors include Catlin Seaview, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Google. The project has already filmed reefs in the Caribbean and Australia, but this is the first time the cameras have been used in the United States.

Some of the Keys images as well as images of earlier expeditions in the Caribbean and Australia can be found on Google Maps under a special section called “ocean view”.

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