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Take a VR swim around these breathtaking national marine sanctuaries

Dive around a school of Atlantic spadefish and marvel at the coral reef

A 360 view of bleached coral in the West Flower Garden Bank marine sanctuary. You can now virtually swim around five marine protected areas around the US.
Photo by Emma Hickerson/NOAA, in collaboration with The Ocean Agency

While I’ve been to several national and state parks around the US, I’ve never visited a national marine sanctuary — protected areas off the US coasts and in the Great Lakes. I’ve never scuba dived or snorkeled, so these marine “parks” are not as accessible to me. But now I can just dive into the blue waters thanks to my smartphone. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just launched a virtual dive gallery that allows you to visit five national marine sanctuaries across the US with your phone, laptop, or VR headset.

The project provides people with a scuba diver’s view of American Samoa, Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico, Gray's Reef off the coast of Georgia, and Thunder Bay in Lake Huron. It’s like you’re swimming in the ocean or a lake, surrounded by a school of Atlantic spadefish, marveling at the coral reef, or looking at 19th century shipwrecks. The goal is to expand access to the marine sanctuaries — even if just virtually — so that more people are aware of what these precious habitats look like, and what challenges they’re facing.

The "Christ of the Abyss" is a 9-foot-long bronze statue located in the Key Largo Dry Docks Sanctuary Preservation Area of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Image: The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Although about 40 percent of the US population lives on the coasts, there aren’t a lot of scuba divers in the US, says Mitchell Tartt, chief of the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries' Conservation Science Division and coordinator of the virtual dive project. “There’s a pretty big disconnect,” he says. To those who can’t scuba dive or snorkel, the marine sanctuaries are off reach. And here’s where the project steps in.

“We can put a window to the ocean in the palm of someone's hand and let them explore the underwater world and national marine sanctuaries through that window,” says Tartt. That immersive experience serves an educational purpose: if people can see how coral dies due to warming ocean temperatures, they’re more likely to understand and be engaged with the problem. “Sometimes it’s hard for explain to folks or get people to identify with what those pressures are on the environment,” Tartt says.

That’s why some 360-degree photographs show staghorn corals in the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa before, during, and after a bleaching event in 2015. By virtually swimming around dead coral skeletons overgrown by turf algae, you can get a sense of what coral bleaching looks like. Or take invasive species like the lionfish, which is having a destructive impact on the Florida Keys and the Flower Garden Banks sanctuaries. “They’re ferocious predators,” Tartt says. “It basically eats everything.” Actually seeing what these invasive species look like — as if you’re there in the ocean with them — can help you identify with the problem.

Before and during the 2015 coral bleaching event in the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa | Image: The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey

The VR project began in 2014, in collaboration with The Ocean Agency, a nonprofit organization that’s documenting the death of coral reefs worldwide. Since then, scuba divers have been collecting images from nine sanctuaries across the US. Marine areas off the Hawaiian islands and Monterey Bay will soon become available, Tartt says. The photos are taken with Sony A6000 cameras mounted on a tripod and enclosed in a waterproof box. Every 60 degrees, a photo is taken, so that they can then be stitched together in post-production to form a 360-degree view. No extra lighting is used, unless the shoot is taking place at around 10 to 25 feet underwater, Tartt says.

“Part of what I like about these images is not to post-process them too much,” he says. “Part of the engaging part is to make them look like they would look like if a diver went there.”

A NOAA diver takes photos that will ultimately be stitched into a 360-degree image of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Photo by Emma Hickerson / NOAA

Next, Tartt would like to start collecting photos from more protected areas, like the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. There are some shipwrecks in there, and the area is a very popular feeding ground for humpback and right whales, he says. The images will be used in classes and museums as teaching tools. They will also made available to scuba dive shops around the US, so that they can be shown to visitors before they go dive into the marine parks. Tartt is also working with Google to try to include the images in the new Google Earth platform.

In the meantime, you can just take out your phones and start diving. I think I know what I’m doing this weekend.