By Ken Kaye
South Florida's coral reefs are about to get Google-mapped, sort of.
Government scientists this month used new high-tech cameras to shoot a 360-degree view of the ocean in the Florida Keys. The goal: to map and then track coral reefs to see if restoration efforts are working.
It was the first time the cameras have been used in U.S. waters, although they have documented reefs in the Caribbean and Australia. Eventually, they will capture all of South Florida's reefs, said Billy Causey, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
"Coral reefs are essential to tourism from the Keys up to Martin County," he said, so protecting them is vital. The initiative will have global benefits.
"Florida is a leading region for reef restoration initiatives,'' said Richard Vevers, project director of the Catlin Seaview Survey, a nonprofit scientific expedition supported by Catlin Group Limited, an international insurer.
In mid-August, Catlin Seaview joined forces with NOAA to shoot dramatic photos in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary near Key Largo, including pictures of the popular "Christ of the Abyss" statue.
By bringing the camera technology to Florida, scientists hope to fast-track reef recovery programs worldwide.
How? The Keys images will be analyzed by the University of Queensland in Australia, where Catlin Seaview is based. The photos then will be compared to those taken in the future to see if coral reefs have improved or regressed over time.
"From those images, we should be able to evaluate any changes to the reefs, positive or negative," said Bill Goodwin, resource manager of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Coral reefs are crucial to the overall balance of the oceans, as they provide a habitat to a variety of sea life. They are important to South Florida's tourism and fishing industries, as they lure thousands of visitors and anglers to this region each year.
Yet there has been a 40 percent worldwide decline in corals in the past 30 years, due to warming oceans, pollution, hurricanes and overfishing. South Florida's reefs have been particularly vulnerable to acidification of the ocean, seaborne diseases and destructive sponges.
On Wednesday, NOAA announced a major initiative to protect coral reefs, which entailed extending protection to 20 coral species under the Endangered Species Act.
For its part, in hopes of restoring order, Catlin Seaview has been employing a basketball-shaped SVII panoramic camera to closely study ocean ecosystems.
The triple-lens camera captures images every three seconds _ but only for as long as they are tethered to scuba divers. When the divers head to surface, the cameras are shut down.
Google, a partner in the Catlin Seaview Survey, uses the same technology for street views. Images of earlier expeditions in the Caribbean and Australia already are available via Google Maps, under a special section called "ocean view."
NOAA officials said among their goals in using the camera is to better educate the public about the nation's 13 marine sanctuaries and gaining support for restoration programs.
"It's not only a scientific tool, but also a hugely effective education and outreach tool," Causey said. "Can you image going into 360-degree theater and getting to experience these reefs without getting wet?"
(Sun Sentinel staff writer David Fleshler contributed to this report.)
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