Take a Virtual Swim Through Five Marine Sanctuaries

From sunken ships to schools of fish, the new 360-degree, VR images are breathtaking

This glimpse inside the "Valley of the Giants" shows massive coral heads that are protected within the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa on Ta'u. (Image courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency/NOAA)

The experience of swimming through coral reefs or exploring ancient shipwrecks is one few get to experience. But a new initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) seeks to make some of the world’s most beautiful underwater habitats accessible with the click of a mouse.

As Alessandra Potenza reports for The Verge, NOAA has launched a Sanctuary Virtual Dive Gallery, which offers 360-degree, VR images of five national marine sanctuaries: the ship graveyard of Thunder Bay in Lake Huron, the Florida Keys, Gray’s Reef off the coast of Georgia, Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico, and American Samoa.

The web-based images are viewable on any computer or mobile device. A VR headset isn’t necessary to enjoy the gallery, but an NOAA press release notes that “the virtual reality experience on your mobile device is certainly enhanced with the addition of a headset viewer.”

NOAA divers have been working on the Sanctuary Virtual Dive Gallery since 2014, as part of a collaboration with the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, a privately funded initiative to document the health of coral reefs around the world. The team has captured a trove of arresting scenes: a shipwrecked steamer in Thunder Bay, a school of striped Atlantic spadefish gliding through Gray’s Reef, a sunken statue of Christ encrusted with marine creatures in the Florida Keys.

The goal of the project is to make marine sanctuaries more accessible to the general public. “Because such a small percentage of people in the U.S. are able to scuba dive, we constantly face the challenge of showcasing the underwater beauty and wonders of national marine sanctuaries," said Mitchell Tartt, chief of the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries' Conservation Science Division, according to the press release.

"These virtual dives are incredibly engaging and truly provide unique experiences that anyone with internet access can enjoy,” he added. “They are game changers in helping the public and our partners better understand these places."

In addition to showcasing the majesty of a world hidden beneath the water, the gallery also highlights threats to the health of marine habitats. The virtual gallery features, for instance, three photos taken of the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa before, during, and after a bleaching event. The sanctuary’s corals, initially vital and bright, turn to a skeletal white, then to a dull brown as turf algae overtakes the coral.

Moving forward, the team plans to add snapshots from other dives to the gallery, covering such areas as California’s Monterey Bay, the Stellwagen Bank of Massachusetts Bay, and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale sanctuary. Divers and non-divers alike will be able to take a virtual swim through these protected marine sanctuaries—and gain a vivid appreciation of how important it is to save them.

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