Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet—and for most of us, that’s where the story ends. Our knowledge goes only as deep as the shimmering surface, even though the oceans in their full volume provide 90% of the habitable space on the planet. More than 95% of the underwater world remains unseen by human beings. It’s as if you tried to explore the entire land mass of Earth and only made it as far as Australia. It’s a great continent, but there’s a whole lot more out there.
Still, there’s a reason why we know more about our local solar system than we do about the waters beneath us. Underwater ocean exploration is expensive, difficult and sometimes dangerous. The glimpses scientists do get of the undersea world are all too brief ones, just slices of time and space that offer only a glimpse of an ocean system that has enormous impact on the planet in everything from the food we eat to the way the climate is changing. Last year the director James Cameron made news by becoming the first person in decades to dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot on the planet, in a sub of his own design. Our understanding and management of the oceans is “very data poor,” as David Kline of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography puts it.
All of which is why Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero found himself floating in the Caribbean Sea off the Central American country of Belize, as his colleagues stood in a bobbing fishing boat, trying to ensure that a very expensive underwater camera didn’t get dinged as they lowered it into the seas. Gonzalez-Rivero is a coral ecologist at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute in Australia, but he was in Belize this past weekend working with the Catlin Seaview Survey, a scientific expedition that is trying to assess threatened coral reefs around the world with a level of unprecedented scope and detail. The camera is the SVII, and it’s actually three separate cameras, mounted at the end of a six-foot long pole and attached to a propeller sled. The propellers saved Gonzalez-Rivero the work of swimming as he covered about 1.25 miles of varied underwater terrain here on Belize’s protected Glover’s Reef, part of the vast Mesoamerican reef that stretches from southern Honduras to the eastern tip of Mexico.
The custom-designed SVII has lens facing to the left, right and below, and all three snap pictures of their surroundings automatically every three seconds. Over the course of his dive Gonzalez-Rivero will produce more than 900 detailed images of the reef below him, each one rich with data about coral structure and sealife. Those images will be processed to produced a precise 3-D image of the reef, and later computers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography will crunch the data and analyze the coral structure, allowing scientists to diagnose the health of one of the most valuable marine ecosystems in the Caribbean. What’s long been possible on land thanks to satellites eyeing rainforests and deserts will now be doable beneath the waves. “We’ll be able to see the reef as it is,” Gonzalez-Rivero tells me later on the sailing catamaran his team is using as a floating base.
The Catlin Seaview Survey—the name comes from the Catlin insurance company, the chief sponsor of the expedition—was launched about a year ago, with the team first tackling the vast Great Barrier Reef off the northeastern coast of Australia. Begun by Richard Vevers—a former advertising executive turned underwater photographer—Seaview is nothing if not ambitious. Over the course of several years, it aims to survey every major coral reef system in the world, providing broad scientific data about marine ecosystems that are as vital to a healthy ocean as they are threatened by overfishing, pollution and climate change. “By creating a really large global baseline of coral health, we can identify the areas that really need protecting,” says Vevers.
It’s not just about the science, though. The images taken by the SVII as it glides over a reef can be stitched together to create 360 degree vistas of the undersea world, the kind that would have only been available before through the eyes of a scuba diver. Seaview has been working with Google to bring the company’s Street View map function beneath the water—you can see some of the panoramic images from the waters off the Great Barrier Reef’s Heron Island here. Vevers knows that most people will never visit the ocean, let alone scuba dive in the tropics and see a living coral reef. The images created by the Seaview will be the next best thing. “The main reason for setting this up is to show people the oceans of the world as they are,” says Vevers. “We want to give them the real experience of diving.”
Seaview just launched its Caribbean expedition, beginning in Belize. The video below shows what a dive with the SVII looks like, stitched together with time-lapse photography.
The oceans, and especially the deep, have always been a challenge for conservationists because they are so removed from everyday life. Viewed from above the waves, a healthy coral reef and a dying one look much the same. The images brought back by Seaview—viewable by anyone with an Internet connection—could begin to change that. If you can dial up a view of your closest reef on Google Earth the way you can zero in on your childhood home, we might begin to notice what’s happening to the 70% of the planet covered by water.
And make no mistake—the ocean, and especially the coastal coral reefs, are in trouble. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest such system, has lost more than half its coral cover since 1985. Over the last half-century, some 80% of the corals in much of the Caribbean have died off because of pollution and development. As the climate changes, warming the oceans and causing the water to become relatively more acidic, corals will come under even more pressure. Researchers in the journal Environmental Research Letters recently predicted that if carbon emissions continued rising unchecked, most coral reefs would be all but dead by the end of the century. That would have dire implications for sealife—coral reefs are the nursery of the oceans, and they provide vital protection for coastlines from erosion and flooding. “Coral is an intrinsic part of sealife, and it’s valuable to society,” says Stephen Catlin, the CEO of the Catlin Group. “It’s the first layer of protection for the coast.”
Seaview is just beginning—over the next several years, the team expects to cover the Caribbean, the Coral Sea in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Middle East, producing hundreds of thousands of images. Just a few years ago, it would have likely taken decades for scientists to analyze it all, with each individual image requiring 15 to 30 minutes of labor to identify pictured coral species. But the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of California-San Diego, using facial recognition technology similar to what CIA employs to identify wanted terrorists in pictures of crowds, will be able to analyze the images a hundred times faster. With 90% accuracy, a computer program can scan each image from the expedition and spit out the pictured species and extent of coral growth, giving researchers a quick and accurate picture of reef health—more than a hundred times faster than such work could have been done by humans alone. As more and more images are fed into the program, the computer will get better and better at identifying pictured coral, learning as it goes. “What used to take us years we can now do in weeks and months,” says Kline, a project scientist at Scripps and a Seaview partner. “We’ll have large-scale quality data about the health of the reefs, and that will allow managers to make much more informed decisions about protection policies.” This is big data for a very big scientific challenge.
The scientific data produced by Seaview will be open-source, meaning any scientist working on coral reefs will be able to access it for their own research. Dive by dive, they’ll digitize the oceans, and this remote, mysterious territory that takes up most of our planet will begin to become comprehensible—just in time to save it.