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Photographing All of the World's Coral Reefs

By Erin Biba

How do you understand global change of a system that’s underwater and impossible to photograph from above? Build a giant submersible camera system controlled by expert dive photographers, of course.

How do you understand global change of a system that’s underwater and impossible to photograph from above? Build a giant submersible camera system controlled by expert dive photographers, of course.

The world’s reef systems are deteriorating. Corals are going away at a rate of about 1 - 2 percent every year. Some areas are harder hit than others. In the last 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost 53 percent of its corals and the Caribbean has lost 80 percent. That’s a big deal because reef systems are basically cities for fish. One quarter of all the ocean’s life makes their home there. If the ocean’s corals disappear then much of the life in the ocean disappears too. For humans, that means we can no longer depend on reef systems for food, protection from weather, tourism, and medicine.

So, we know reefs are important. And we know they’re deteriorating. What we don’t have is a visual understanding of how these reef systems are changing and any capability to compare changes to themselves or each other over time. To change that, professional underwater photographers have gotten together with ocean scientists to create the Global Reef Record -- a world-wide Google Maps-like photographic index of all of the coral systems in the entire world.

“We’re creating a global baseline,” says Richard Vevers, executive director of the survey. “We’ve been travelling around the world using a standard protocol for collection imagery, which allows us to do a global comparison.”

In order to accurately capture every reef on earth with consistency and 360-degree panoramic views, Vevers, who has a background in professional underwater photography, had to engineer and build a special camera. “Initially it came from an understanding of underwater photography, which is very different. We looked at taking the Google Streetview camera underwater, but we needed much wider angle lenses and we needed to be able to take shots in low visibility and low light. We also needed change exposure as we were moving without having to access the camera.”

The solution was to build the camera completely from scratch and then mount it on an underwater scooter. The entire $50,000 system is manipulated by a waterproofed tablet, with specially designed apps, that can be controlled by divers who move a magnetic mouse that operates a button inside the tablet’s glass box.

To collect images, the team has four of the 145-pound, five-foot-long camera setups. Two per team of four to five divers. The teams spend one month on location at a reef capturing visuals by travelling along one-mile-long transects, hugging the reef substrate at about 30 feet deep. It’s important, says Vevers, to keep this consistent so that scientists can easily compare the images later when they’re doing research. “It’s a standard wherever we go. Normally the reefs will start in shallow water and go deeper and we follow the contour of reef so we get comparable data,” he says.

So far, the team has captured 300,000 panoramas.

The next big challenge they had to overcome was figuring out how to manage the massive amounts of data collected by the cameras. The University of Queensland has donated space in their newly constructed supercomputer to store information. So far, the team has captured 300,000 panoramas. In order to analyze the images, they worked with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which modified facial recognition software to analyze the reef and coral diversity down to the species level. “What would normally have taken years can now be done in days,” thanks to the software, says Vevers.

All of the information the Survey collects is open source and publicly available to any scientists who want to access it. So far they’ve uploaded 60,000 images to their public site and they hope to have significantly more than half a million by the time they’re done. Though “done” is a relative term -- the team is planning to revisit the reefs every three to five years, which will create a record of the change going on with each system.

“This should be a permanent record of the health of the reefs that anybody can go back to and monitor change. Anybody can revisit those locations even using traditional techniques and make comparisons,” he says.

So far they’ve surveyed 30 reefs in Australia and 81 in the Atlantic. This year they’re focusing on southeast Asia and eventually they’ll capture images of all five of the world’s major systems (the other two being the Pacific and Indian oceans). The best part of all of this, besides the vast gobs of scientific data they’re collecting, is that anyone who wants to can easily peruse their data and view images of the world’s oceans. Even you! Have a look.

Photos courtesy Catlin Global Reef Record