Google goes under the sea with Street View at Google I/O

Google's partner in documenting the ocean floor says it needs more help from developers to save the world's coral reefs.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Google showed off its underwater Google Maps Street View photography at the Google I/O show in San Francisco. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google and its partner The Catlin Seaview Survey need help from developers to document the world's coral reefs and save them from extinction.

During a session at the Google I/O developer conference, Richard Vevers of the Catlin Seaview Survey and Jenifer Austin Foulkes, a business product manager for Google Earth & Maps, talked up Google's efforts to bring underwater panoramic images to Google Maps.

Google first started virtually mapping the ocean floor four years ago, and in September the company launched its first 360 degree panoramic street views of the ocean. Google partnered with The Catlin Seaview Survey, which is taking the pictures and using Google tools to upload the pictures to Google Maps.

The Catlin Seaview Survey is a partnership between the global insurance company Catlin Group Limited, nonprofit Underwater Earth, and The University of Queensland's Global Change Institute. And the group's work is focused on ocean conservation, specifically protecting coral reefs throughout the world. As part of the Street View project with Google, the Survey has plans to document the world's coral reefs to document the state of the reefs today and to monitor changes over time. So far, the group has managed to compile images from six different locations including sites off the Philippines, Hawaii and the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia.

The Catlin Seaview Survey has two major goals for this project, Vevers said. One is to document the state of the reefs for scientific study. And the other is to bring awareness of both the beauty and fragility of the ocean ecosystem to the public in the hopes that people will take action to protect them.

Google Maps ocean Street View allows people to dive with sea turtles, fish, and manta rays. But it also shows scientists the state of the coral reefs. Vevers said that images taken from the Great Barrier Reef recently document a 33 percent devastation of corals compared to the past few decades. Vevers hopes bringing awareness to this issue as people explore the wonders under the sea will help with conservation efforts.

"People don't protect something they can't see," he said. "Google's map tools have been instrumental in helping with the public engagement part so that people can see the images and then they can do something about preserving these environments."

But taking millions of people on virtual tours of the ocean is no easy task. And Vevers said his organization, which has developed special cameras that cost about $50,000 a pop, and has adapted some of Google's Street View photography technology, needs more help.

Specifically, he said that as the project opens up to allow more people to take pictures to document the ocean, the group needs image recognition software that can look at full 360 degree images. He said that the group also needs developers to develop more ways to make the images engaging to get people more involved.

"The effort we are undertaking is a race against time," Vevers said. "We need to monitor these changes and figure out the critical areas to protect. We need more developers. We already have some good support. But we need more help."