Curacao Enters the Virtual Era

A survey team of scientists, robotic specialists and cinematographers working on the XL Catlin Seaview Survey recently visited Curacao to study and photograph the island’s coral reef. The team spent several weeks appraising and photographing the reef for Google as well as collecting scientific data to be utilized in future reef research.

As divers that have visited the island can attest, Curacao’s coral reef is among the most beautiful in the world. But that underwater world will shortly no longer only be visible to divers, but as a virtual rendering also be available to people that are not willing or able to don scuba gear. These people will soon be able to enjoy marine life via Google Maps ‘virtual diving’ platform.

The team spent many hours shooting videos in the shallower parts of the reef. Apart from their traditional dives, they however also made use of Substation Curacao’s submarine ‘Curasub’ to capture footage of the reef. With the Curasub, that can take up to four passengers to a maximum depth of 1000 feet, they were able to significantly expand the depths to which a person can take a camera.

The shallow reef survey involved photographing the reef in full 360 degree panoramic vision using specially developed cameras. As was the case when the Great Barrier Reef became the first area that target of this comprehensive study, the camera images are automatically analyzed using image recognition software, specially designed by UQ researchers, creating a baseline for scientific analysis from remote locations. The study serves to document the composition and health of the world’s coral reefs across a depth range of 0-300 feet.

While the survey team was working their way along the shallow reef, Dr. Pim Bongaerts from the Coral Reef Ecosystems Laboratory at the University of Queensland, Brisbane in Australia was doing a study in the deep reef off the island where he was looking into the effects of climate change on one of the least known ecosystems on the planet ñ the deep-water reefs or mesophotic coral ecosystems (between 90 and 300 feet).

The term ‘mesophotic coral ecosystems’ has recently been adopted for the deep, light-dependent coral communities that are found at depths in excess of 90 feet (usually confined to a maximum depth of 300-450 feet). Compared to their shallow water counterparts these communities until recently did not receive much attention. Their great depth and therefore relative inaccessibility, being the main reason.

Recent technological advances (ROVs, AUVs, technical diving) however sparked a renewed interest in these ecosystems, especially as they seem to be largely protected from several major reef stressors, such as storm events and elevated seawater temperatures. By exploring the molecular ecology of mesophotic coral ecosystems, Dr. Bongaerts hopes to get a better understanding of the ability of these deep reef areas to act as refugia and more importantly to re-seed shallow reefs post disturbance.