New Google Ocean Takes Google Earth Beyond the "Dirt"

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
February 2, 2009
Exploring the oceans no longer requires a wet suit.

Ocean in Google Earth, which launched today, builds on the free, popular 3-D mapping software Google Earth by allowing users to navigate underwater in unprecedented clarity. (See new Google Earth ocean pictures.)

New "layers" to the satellite-based software include topographic maps of the seafloor; locations of shipwrecks and algal blooms; and even maps of the tiny phytoplankton that provide the bulk of the ocean's food chain.

Within the layers, users can explore multimedia features that combine data and maps with videos, quizzes, and other interactives. (Watch Google Earth ocean preview.)

(Related story: "Google Earth, Satellite Maps Boost Armchair Archaeology" [November 7, 2006].)

The new fish-eye view—accessible via a free upgrade—aims to provide a public platform for users to talk about the oceans, said John Hanke, director of Geo Products at Google.

"It really is a means... [of] raising geographical awareness of oceans and … the pressures that are being put on life in the ocean," he added.

Into the Blue

The idea first came to well-known marine biologist Sylvia Earle at a conference in Madrid, Spain, a few years ago, when she addressed Hanke during a presentation.

"I just blurted it out," Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, recalled. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

"I said, I hope someday, John, you'll finish [Google Earth]. You've done a great job with the dirt, but there's all that water out there—the world is blue."

Seventy-two percent of the Earth is covered by oceans.

Hanke said that Earle's comments "got under our skin—it doesn't make sense that the information stops at the coastline."

Earle, who narrates the introductory video, suggested from the start that the program go beyond maps: "You need to be able to touch and dive in and see what's there," she said.

The resulting product is a vibrant panorama, from videos of bluefin tuna on the hunt to quizzes about sea life—from leopard seals to nudibranchs.

(Learn about the oceans in National Geographic magazine.)

Clicking on the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean layer, for instance, combines maps of the region with videos and Web links showing reefs' colorful denizens.

In addition to National Geographic, several well-known marine institutions and initiatives, such as the Census of Marine Life (a ten-year effort to catalog marine organisms), Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have contributed data.

(Related: "PHOTOS: New Deep-Sea Species Revealed by Marine Census" [November 10, 2008].)

Why the Ocean Matters

For Earle, Google Earth's high-tech porthole to the oceans has an urgent import: The seas' health is declining, and less than one percent of the world's marine waters are protected.

"This is another major breakthrough in showing the people of the world why the ocean matters," Earle said. (Get 50 ways to save the oceans from the National Geographic's Green Guide.)

For instance, "the ocean provides the oxygen we breathe, much of the food the world eats, and drives the climate we need to survive—but it is still largely a mystery," Tom McCann, spokesperson for the nonprofit organization Ocean Conservancy, said in an email.

"We hope the addition of Ocean in Google Earth will inspire more people to explore the seas they depend on every day," added McCann, whose organization has provided Google data about marine reserves in the Pacific Ocean.

(Quiz: test your oceans IQ.)

The new program will also make on-the-ground conservation work easier, added Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and National Geographic fellow.

"It allows us to [get] critical information … in almost real time, in a way that is so much more exciting than dry written reports," Sala said.

"We are now using a jet instead of a bicycle. ..."

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