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Take a Virtual Tour of the World’s Coral Reefs

Photographers with new tools and technologies document reefs worldwide

In the 1960s and 70s,  the TV documentary series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau brought the magnificence of the oceans to millions of viewers. Cousteau, a French researcher, explorer, and filmmaker involved in oceanography since the 1940s, quickly became a cultural icon and a leading voice in the environmental movement.

Today, you don’t have to watch a TV documentary to see the undersea landscapes Jacques Cousteau spent his life documenting: thanks to the Catlin Seaview Survey, everyone can now conduct their own virtual tours of coral reefs, right on their laptops.

Coral Reef near Heron Island

An image of the coral reef near Heron Island, taken using the Seaview SVII camera.
By © Underwater Earth / Catlin Seaview Survey – www.catlinseaviewsurvey.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commonswww.catlinseaviewsurvey.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Survey’s website, 40-50% of corals have been lost over the last 50 years due to pollution, overfishing, and climate change. And this decline is likely to continue, which is a critical issue for millions of people who rely on the reefs for food, coastal protection, and tourism dollars.

The Catlin Seaview Survey, launched in September 2012 on the Great Barrier Reef, aims “to scientifically record the world’s coral reefs and reveal them all in high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic vision.” The image data collected by the survey will enable change to be monitored over time, enabling scientists, policymakers, and the general public to see and understand what’s happening to the reefs, which may spur more action to restore and protect reefs worldwide. The images clearly show the difference between active, healthy reefs and reefs that have suffered severe decline. 

The Great Barrier Reef survey included 32 reefs along the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef and out to the Coral Sea. 105,000 geo-tagged panoramic images covering 150 kilometers were captured, and are now being analyzed before their release to the general public. Since completing the survey of the Great Barrier Reef, the project has been documenting reefs in the Caribbean.

The Cameras

Seaview SVII Camera

Seaview SVII Camera
By © Underwater Earth / Catlin Seaview Survey – www.catlinseaviewsurvey.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The equipment used by the surveyors includes cameras specifically developed for the project, underwater robots, and underwater Android tablet devices. Earlier cameras required battery-propelled scooters that were cumbersome and heavy; the new Seaview SVII-S cameras are lighter and far more mobile. Each camera is attached to a neutrally buoyant pole-like structure that is propelled by the diver. With the Seaview SVII-S, multiple cameras can be deployed in different areas at the same time, enabling the surveyors to capture more data in less time.

Rapid-fire 360 degree images are taken every 3 seconds while the diver moves the camera at approximately 4km/h. For each image captured, a geo-location and camera direction is also recorded, so it’s possible to take another photograph at a later date from the exact same camera position as the original. The images are stitched together and published online. Anyone with a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone can then self-navigate a ‘virtual dive.’ The images are high-resolution, full color, and breathtaking.

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island
By Lady_Elliot_Island_SVII.jpg: © Underwater Earth / Catlin Seaview Survey – www.catlinseaviewsurvey.comderivative work: Jjtkk [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Follow the Survey (posts, videos, images, and the occasional Hangout) on Google+.

Not to be missed:  Catlin Seaview Survey’s entertaining YouTube videos, with Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg–recorded underwater, in full scuba gear.


Catlin Group Limited, a global specialty property/casualty insurer and reinsurer, is the sponsor of the Catlin Seaview Survey.  It is the second major scientific sponsorship by Catlin, following three Catlin Arctic Surveys (2009 – 2011) that investigated environmental changes in the Arctic.