Google brings the world's coral reefs to your screen

Most of us will never swim with the giant ocean sunfish off the coast of Bali or tag alongside a humpback whale in the Cook Islands.

But thanks to Google Maps, you can have a virtual view of the experience. In an effort to draw attention to the world's oceans, the company teamed up this week with XL Catlin Seaview Survey, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the Chagos Conservation Trust to release Street View imagery of more than 40 extraordinary underwater locations around the world.

Along with the Cook Islands and Bali, the latest 360-degree underwater images feature American Samoa and the Chagos Islands and underwater dives in the Bahamas and the Great Barrier Reef.

Using a specially designed camera -- the SVII -- divers take 360-degree high-resolution images every three seconds, which are then digitally stitched together. The end result is like an underwater version of Google Street View, allowing viewers to take a "virtual dive" and navigate through the underwater environment.

The goal of the underwater photo survey is not just to reveal the beauty lurking just beneath the waves, but also to educate the public about environmental issues threatening these essential ecosystems and to gather data for scientists tracking the risk.

Google, which has also teamed up with several NGOs to fight illegal fishing, said this is part of its efforts to use technology to tackle global conservation issues.

Coral reefs, sometimes called the "rainforests of the sea," are among the most biodiverse places on Earth. Out of 46 designated marine protected areas, the UNESCO World Heritage Marine Program includes several of the world's reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines, and the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System.

Due to a wide variety of factors -- including coastal development, pollution and overfishing -- the world's coral reefs are deteriorating at the rate of 1 to 2 percent per year. Thermal stress, including rising sea temperatures, is expected to affect nearly 50 percent of the reefs by the 2030s and 95 percent by the 2050s, according to a 2011 report by the World Resources Institute. Rising carbon dioxide levels will increase ocean acidification, which will also reduce coral growth.

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