Coral Reef, © NOAA

At the Corner of Brain Coral and Sea Fan: The Great Barrier Reef Like You’ve Never Seen it Before

by Daniel Thornhill

Ever gone to Google maps and used the “street view” feature to check out a new restaurant?  Or to see which side of the road an address was on?  Well, get ready to use Google maps in a whole new way.  Now you can view some of the most beautiful underwater landscapes on Earth, see fish species you never knew existed, and catch sea turtles napping amid beautiful corals.

Google has launched a new virtual photo tour of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the largest coral reef on the planet, as well as reefs in Hawaii and the Philippines.  The images were gathered for the Caitlin Seaview Survey, a global study of ocean and coral reef health.  There are currently 15,000 images, and by the time the mapping project ends in December, there’ll be about 50,000 available to view!

It used to be that only researchers like me had the opportunity to view and learn about so many different coral habitats and the species that depend on them.  Not anymore: now anyone with an internet connection can go to Google maps for an up-close and personal look at reef life in a growing collection of 360-degree panoramas. This is an unprecedented opportunity for conservation organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, to bring coral reef issues to the fore.

This reef at Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys includes many different coral species and supports a myriad of fish, invertebrates and other animals. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

As a coral reef biologist, I’ve often needed to present the problems reefs face in an engaging way.  Visually documenting reefs is crucial to connecting them to the public.  While national parks and forests are accessible to everyone, coral reefs usually can only be seen in person by scuba divers.  The photos of the Great Barrier Reef and others are a “time-capsule” of the reef’s health.  Coral advocates can use them to educate people around the world, hopefully inspiring them to learn and care about coral reefs.

And coral conservation is more important than ever: climate change, pollution and other stressors are taking a toll on our planet’s reefs, as shown in these incredible “then and now” shots from Double Exposure, a photography site dedicated to showing how climate change alters our environment.  All too often, coral gardens that were vibrant and thriving 20 or 30 years ago are now pale and sparse.  Images are attention-grabbers, drawing viewers in and prompting the questions we researchers ask through our work every day: “how did this happen?” and “how can it be stopped?”

United States reefs in particular are suffering from major issues like overfishing, climate change, and nutrient pollution, which occurs when excess nutrients from waste water or agricultural runoff cause out-of-control algae growth, turning reefs into fields of seaweeds.  I saw first-hand how extreme frigid water temperatures in the winter of 2010 decimated reefs in the Florida Keys, killing corals that had survived for 300 years.  Lionfish, an invasive species that has made its way to the Atlantic coast, voraciously gobble reef-dwelling fish vital to coral ecosystems.  And the international coral trade for aquariums and curios has degraded reefs around the world, including our own.

The challenges that face our coral reefs are great.  But this project is a valuable new gateway to raising awareness about the plight of global coral reefs, and educating the public about how to stop the damage.

Defenders conservation scientist Dan Thornhill was the lead author of a study examining the effects of climate change on coral reefs in the Florida Keys last year- you can read it here.

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