Underwater view coming to Google Maps

2012-03-29 22:44
A diver explores the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef. (AP)

A diver explores the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef. (AP)

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Cape Town - Images from the Great Barrier Reef will soon be coming to Google Maps as the Catlin Seaview Survey maps the world's largest coral reef system.

"The idea is to test the project on the Great Barrier Reef in 2012, and beyond that to roll the project out globally," Richard Vevers, founder of Underwater Earth and director for the project.

The project aims to educate the public about the marine ecosystem which has many puzzles for scientists and threatened by global warming.

The Catlin Seaview Survey aims to carry out a comprehensive survey on the health of the reef and educate the public about the importance of the marine ecosystem.

"Our mission is to reveal our oceans to the world and we want to go across iconic locations all over the world. We're looking at nine to 10 new locations next year and beyond that, it's how quickly we roll this project out," said Vevers.

Challenging

Doing the research is challenging because of the alien environment, one of the research divers on the project said.

"We are in remote locations so we have to have redundant systems for everything. It's always very challenging," research diver Richard Fitzpatrick told News24 from about 40m below the surface of the water.

"The limitation of working under water is breathing. I got a scuba tank on my back at the moment which limits the amount of time I can spend in the water working," he added.

Vevers said that the images captured by the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will become available in Google Maps so that internet users would be able to follow the dive virtually, similar to the way people are able to explore cities with Street View.

"Anybody will be able to drop into a location and go off and follow the route of the scooter, and look round in full 360° vision and see what's there," he said.

The technology for the ROV was custom-built for the project but uses standard cameras to capture ocean depth. The research team had to build the scooter to cope with the marine environment.

"It's all custom-built technology. So it's a good thing we built it ourselves so when things go wrong, we can fix it ourselves," said Fitzpatrick.

Sharks

Weather is a difficult challenge for the researchers because it limits the quality of the images they would like to capture. Working with sharks also poses challenges and the team has to capture sharks without hooks so as not to stress the fish.

"It keeps me going and all the researchers that are working. We're doing things that have never been done before because it was so difficult, but now the technology is developed to where I can talk to you with wireless technology from under water," Fitzpatrick said.

The machine will explore depths of up to 300m where the water temperature is cooler and it is difficult for scuba divers to descend.

They are generally prohibited from going beyond 40m for recreational dives because of decompression sickness.

"We know nothing about those corals from 40m to 300m because it's too deep for scuba divers to go there. Believe it or not, there's been no deep water research done of the Great Barrier Reef whatsoever," said Fitzpatrick.

Scientists have very little idea of what life forms inhabit the depths of the reef and the survey will allow reaserchers to examine clues for what animals make up the ecosystem and how they may be affected by climate change.

It's going to be the first base-line survey to give a really good indication of what deep water life there is on the Great Barrier Reef," said Fitzpatrick.


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