Google Street View extends to Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef at Lady Elliot Island, Australia, seen on Google Street View Photo: Google

Taking a dive on one of the world's greatest natural wonders is now possible without getting your feet wet.

Digital underwater imagery taken by scientists researching the health of the Great Barrier Reef is being used to create virtual dive experiences on google maps.

Up to 50,000 images from twenty locations along the reef off the coast of Australia will be taken by divers using high resolution panoramic underwater cameras. The pictures will be linked up to create a virtual underwater experience that works in much the same way as google's street view feature on google maps.

The pictures are being taken as part of the Catlin Seaview Survey, a three month expedition by Queensland University and insurance firm Catlin Group Limited, which aims to create a Global Reef Record by quite literally taking a snapshot of the Great Barrier Reef on an unprecedented scale.

As well as taking images in shallow water, scientists will also be conducting the first Deep Reef Survey using HD cameras and diving robots to reach places rarely seen before. They're expected to discover new species there too - on a test dive over six days last year, they found four new species of coral and a new species of seahorse.

New software also means they'll be able to carry out surveys and turn around information much more quickly to give up to date information on the effects of climate change on coral reefs.

And while the scientists are making their discoveries, millions more around the world will be able to share the experience as more virtual dives are added.

The expedition team say because of the number of images they will be gathering they are also considering asking members of the public to help them analyse some of the data by becoming 'citizen scientists' and collating information such as the number of fish captured in each image.

Scientists estimate up to 50 per cent of the world's coral reef resources have been lost over the last 30 years. The reefs provide food, employment and protection against waves for millions of people, as well as being the most biodiverse ecosystems in the ocean.

At the moment, six underwater locations are available along the Great Barrier Reef and also in Hawaii and the Philippines. More will be added as the expedition, which began ten days ago, continues. Go to maps.google.com/ocean to select from the Street View gallery.