Debuting Sanctuaries 360°: Our Earth is Blue and Surrounding You

By Hannah MacDonald

June 2020

turtle swimming being filmed by a snorkler

Ask any diver about their first experience underwater and you are likely to get a response about how surreal submerging into the blue was, how the first dive took their breath away, how they saw the unimaginable, and how they were completely immersed and experienced water in an entirely new way. Divers lucky enough to dive in national marine sanctuaries, America's underwater parks, might emphasize that their experience was enhanced by marine life encounters, elaborate coral reefs, towering kelp forests and historic shipwrecks. This month, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is launching Sanctuaries 360°, a collection of immersive underwater experiences to bring these exceptional places to viewers all over the world.

The National Marine Sanctuary System encompasses over 600,000 square miles of underwater parks that protect special marine places. These underwater parks are destinations for many who want to visit the ocean and experience immense beauty, biodiversity and have the chance to encounter marine life. For many, reaching and experiencing these underwater parks, like a diver, can be a challenge. Thankfully, virtual reality technology has enabled us to visit incredible places from the comfort of our homes.

Sanctuaries 360° uses virtual reality (VR) video to immerse viewers in the waters of national marine sanctuaries. Filmed using industry-leading 360° underwater and land-based camera systems, these videos can be viewed on VR headsets, phones, tablets, and computer screens, empowering you to visit these underwater parks anytime, anywhere. "Using VR can eliminate  barriers that may have kept someone from being able to experience our national marine sanctuaries," says Tracy Hajduk, National Education Coordinator. "Never before have our national marine sanctuaries been so accessible and available to the public."

The following four videos kick off the Sanctuaries 360° series brought to you by NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Viewers will encounter sea lions, sharks and sea turtles, restore coral reefs and tour a shipwreck on the lakebed. Grab a phone, tablet, computer or virtual reality headset and explore national marine sanctuaries through your fingertips with the videos below.

Explore the Blue: 360° Coral Restoration

diver transplants corals

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects some of the most iconic coral reefs in the world, but corals are suffering from disease and other stressors. Fortunately, NOAA and our partners are working together to restore these critical coral reefs. Grab your mask (okay, headset) and help restore the reef by planting healthy corals that will grow into thriving colonies.

Explore the Blue: 360° Sea Lion Encounter

sea lion swims near divers

Located off the coast of Southern California, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is a biological hotspot. Swim along with a playful sea lion as it takes you on a tour through the sanctuary's kelp forests and rocky outcrops.

Explore the Blue: 360° Hawaiian Adventure

Two sea turtles surrounded by fish

Come along and explore with green sea turtles (honu) as they take you around Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Learn how Hawaii's volcanic islands were formed, swim with whitetip reef sharks, and watch your new turtle friends kick back and relax at the turtle spa.

Explore the Blue: 360° Shipwreck Alley

A diver swims above ashipwreck

National marine sanctuaries protect more than just aquatic life. Places like Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, located in Lake Huron, safeguard our nation's maritime history. Join your dive buddies on a visit to D.M. Wilson, one of the hundreds of shipwrecks protected in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Education Lesson Plans

Along with these videos, lesson plans have been developed for educators to further engage middle school students with the virtual dive experience. These lessons take you deeper into each video and align with leading science standards and ocean literacy principles. 

Your National Marine Sanctuaries
In this National Marine Sanctuary System overview lesson, a mini-research project introduces students to sanctuaries by comparing and contrasting the various sanctuaries. Through a deeper dive into the digital resources offered, including four 360° videos, students learn how national marine sanctuary sites are designated and why they are important for protecting and preserving the ocean and Great Lakes.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Tied to the virtual dive on the wreck of D.M Wilson, students research the historical, ecological, and economic importance of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Students create a digital infographic that communicates the importance of preserving a shipwreck.

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
On a visit to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, students will explore the plants and animals that live and thrive in the cold-water marine environment that they encountered in the 360° video. They will also learn about specific adaptations necessary for survival in this habitat.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
In the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary 360° video, students learn about the diversity of life found in the Hawaiian Islands.  Students will explore the ecology of three different species, their importance to Native Hawaiian culture, and the conservation measures in place for their protection.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Students will dive deeper into the coral restoration work that the 360° video highlights. Students will research the ecology of coral reefs, natural and human threats to corals, and the science of coral restoration. Students will design and make an argument for a proposed new coral nursery to be placed within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

America's national marine sanctuaries are places of hope, inspiration, biodiversity and resilience. And now, diving into them is at your fingertips. So ready, set, dive!

Hannah MacDonald is the education specialist with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.