New Virtual Dive Gallery Puts National Marine Sanctuaries at the Tip of Your Fingers

May 2017

Can't get to your national marine sanctuaries? Thanks to the wonders of 360-degree photography and virtual reality, these underwater treasures now are as close as the tips of your fingers. NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has launched a virtual dive gallery, complete with immersive 360-degree views of five national marine sanctuaries: American Samoa, Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks, Gray's Reef, and Thunder Bay.

Divers visiting Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary are often surrounded by schooling fish like the Atlantic spadefish. Photo: Bill Goodwin/NOAA in collaboration with The Ocean Agency

In earlier days of ocean exploration, adventurer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau amazed the world with his stunning video footage of the underwater places he visited. His film The Silent World opened up an undersea realm that few would otherwise have had the opportunity to see. Now, we're taking Cousteau's vision a step further by creating a library of virtual dive experiences that you can experience and interact with from your smartphone, tablet, or personal computer.

The virtual dives take users underwater for a scuba diver's view of your national marine sanctuaries, allowing you to navigate through the dive sites as if you were there in person. In addition to the striking imagery, the virtual experience helps highlight NOAA's efforts to monitor issues such as marine debris, ocean noise, invasive species, and changes in habitat and animal health.

The diverse coral reef protected within Fagatele Bay in the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa can be seen in this image. Image courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey / The Ocean Agency.

No longer out of sight and out of mind

The Sanctuary Virtual Dive Gallery is totally web-based and readily viewable on any computer or mobile device, provided you have access to the internet. So you don't need to download a special app to your smartphone or use specific software on your computer. While you do not need a need a VR headset to experience the imagery, the virtual reality experience on your mobile device is certainly enhanced with the addition of a headset viewer.

By sharing these underwater experiences, we're bringing the public up close and personal with the incredible resources the National Marine Sanctuary System protects. These special places might be out of sight and mind most of the time, but beneath the ocean's waves exist vibrant marine habitats, amazing sea creatures, and relics of our nation's maritime history.

Seeing tangible examples of the issues affecting sanctuary resources puts viewers behind the "diver's mask," so to speak, where they can be inspired to act in support of stewardship and conservation goals. "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," says Mitchell Tartt, chief of the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries' Conservation Science Division. "These virtual dives are incredibly engaging and truly provide unique experiences that anyone with internet access can enjoy. They are game changers in helping the public and our partners better understand these places."

diver using 360 camera to take photos in the florida keys
A specially-trained diver takes photos that will ultimately be stitched into a 360-degree image of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Collecting these images with the use of a tripod requires a sanctuary permit and extreme care to not disturb the reef or seabed. Photo: Emma Hickerson/NOAA

The making of sanctuary virtual dives

The effort to create 360-degree images of national marine sanctuaries began in 2014 with a collaboration between NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the XL Catlin Seaview Survey project, a privately funded global effort to document and assess the health of coral reefs around the world. One of the study locations in this global effort was the reefs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. During the mission to the sanctuary, divers captured 360-degree images along 14 miles of coral reef, as well as images from unique locations including Christ of the Abyss statue, coral nurseries, and restoration sites.  

Today, sanctuary staff continue to collaborate with The Ocean Agency to collect additional images of sanctuary gems. Between 2014 and 2016, scuba divers collected images from nine sanctuaries across the system.

"Shooting these images is all about balance," explains Phil Hartmeyer, a maritime archaeologist at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. "Each virtual dive you see is the result of the camera's settings, diver positioning, and subject framing all being in perfect equilibrium."

people viewing the 360 image on their smartphones with vr googles
Participants at the Gray's Reef Film Fest take a virtual dive into their sanctuary. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA   

Virtual reality for the future

Now that the initial gallery is available, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries will continue to add virtual dives from other sanctuaries as they are developed, including dives in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale, Monterey Bay, Stellwagen Bank, Channel Islands, and Olympic Coast national marine sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Virtual dive experiences provide an exciting opportunity for the National Marine Sanctuary System to share tangible examples of the threats facing the ocean and sanctuary resources so that the public can learn more about these issues. In the coming year, we also plan to use virtual imagery to enhance our educational exhibits and displays at visitor centers, and in our interactions with students in schools and classrooms across the country.

So what are you waiting for? Dive in -- and be sure to check back often to see new virtual dives.

For more information please contact Chiara Zuccarino-Crowe (chiara.zuccarino-crowe@noaa.gov) or Mitchell Tartt (mitchell.tartt@noaa.gov)