You don’t have to visit Australia to experience the wonder of the Great Barrier Reef.
Google, Netflix and Twitter, as well as the BBC and Australian nonprofit New Horizons, have produced digital experiences that make the reef accessible from your couch. Swim in the pristine waters of Australia’s Coral Sea, spy on the reef’s bountiful marine life and soak up the grandeur of a UNESCO World Heritage Site without putting on a swimsuit.
Some of the projects use virtual reality to immerse you in a world that is both beautiful and alien. Big names, including David Attenborough and Google, are behind some of the efforts, ensuring they’re as entertaining as they are educational.
This is part of our series “” on efforts to save one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
The efforts to document the Great Barrier Reef come as global warming pushes sea temperatures higher, endangering the reef’s coral. Bleachings in 2016 and 2017 killed huge swaths of the tiny marine animals, which expel the algae that live with and nourish them when exposed to heat. An estimated 29 percent of the shallow-water coral was killed last year alone, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government body responsible for monitoring its health.
The documentarians hope making the reef’s beauty available to everyone will inspire us to change our behavior. If we curb global warming, the reef will get a chance to recover. If we don’t, VR experiences might become the only way future generations can see it.
Begin your dive with David Attenborough
The BBC’s “Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough” is a good place to start your virtual tour of the reef. The three-part series, released in 2015, introduces viewers to the reef’s inhabitants and is hosted with the characteristic charm of the beloved naturalist. You can stream the documentary on Netflix.
If you happen to be in Canberra, Australia, or Trondheim, Norway, stop by the National Museum Australia or the Trondheim Science Centre to see a condensed VR version called “David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive.” You’ll spend the 19-minute experience in the Triton submersible with Attenborough as he glides through the Great Barrier Reef. Further information is supplied by Justin Marshall, a professor and reef expert, as they slowly descend and come up close to corals, an assortment of fishes and reef sharks.
The creators of “Dive,” Atlantic Productions and Alchemy VR, also produced an interactive site with five chapters, each set at a different location on the Great Barrier Reef. Each chapter is accompanied by a short video and slides that explore the reef and its inhabitants.
One of the most moving elements is an interactive depiction of the reef’s deteriorating health. It lets you pan a 360-degree camera and change the amount of pollution hitting the reef, driving home the ways human activity affects the reef over time. The site won the Best Interactive award at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival last month.
Chase corals on Netflix
Attenborough’s film may leave you exhilarated, like a child discovering the treasures of nature. But the makers of “Chasing Coral,” a Netflix documentary, want to provoke more than wonder. The film is a no-holds-barred presentation of the Great Barrier Reef’s dire health, designed to make us act.
Richard Vevers, who heads marine advocacy The Ocean Agency and stewarded the project, said he was devastated to see stretches of dead coral after having seen them healthy a year earlier.
The producers re-create the visual beauty of the reef, but Vevers says they can’t replicate other sensory experiences that may capture the plight of the Great Barrier Reef better than any image.
“You come out of the water and that’s when it hits you because you smell it,” says Vevers. “It’s the dying flesh of all the animals.”
The movie premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the US Documentary Audience Award. Netflix made it available online in July. “Chasing Coral” won Best Impact Film at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival last month.
Embark on an expedition with Google
“Chasing Coral” might not have happened if Vevers hadn’t begun his quest to capture the devastation of the Great Barrier Reef on Google Street View.
Using images collected by XL Caitlin Seaview Survey, a marine study Vevers runs, Google pulled together 360-degree underwater photos in the Google Street View format. The photos, taken in different years, are a record of the reef’s health.
You might find the experience more immersive using Google Earth VR for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. If you’re like me, you’ll likely find yourself intrigued by the shape of the corals. Some resemble brains, others wishbones. They’re all mesmerising.
Street View and Earth VR are great for getting a sense of the scope of the reef and its problems. If you want to get a more complete understanding of what you’re seeing, take a dive with Google Expeditions.
Designed for classrooms, Google Expeditions is useful for solo travellers and has an “Explore on your own” option. The app has two Great Barrier Reef adventures. One explains the ecosystem and science of the reef, and the other serves as a virtual travel guide, showing you famous spots, such as Lady Elliot Island and Heron Island.
Australia brings the parks to you in VR
New Horizons, an Australian nonprofit, is part of the team behind the Parallel Parks initiative, a project to capture the Great Barrier Reef and three other national parks in VR. New Horizons wants to bring the wonder of the parks to people who can’t get to them, particularly people with disabilities.
In September, Parallel Parks held an event in Sydney, where it showed a two-minute video of its reef experience. In the first minute you’re flying across the sea at Vlasoff Cay, marvelling at the expanse of the reef. Then you’re taken beneath the waters where you dive among a multicoloured expanse of corals, which are sometimes called “the rainforests of the sea.”
Join a dive on Periscope
In July, Twitter collaborated with travel personality Mitchell Oates to livestream a dive at the Great Barrier Reef. More than 100,000 viewers watched at least part of Oates’ dive, which you can replay from his Periscope channel.
Unlike the documentaries, the quality isn’t pristine. But that enhances the realistic feel of the unedited recording.
Oates’ raw excitement is plainly visible as he dives the reef for the first time, ticking an item off his bucket list. Nearby fish occasionally videobomb him as he explores the earth-coloured coral.
Real-time viewers were engaged too. Oates panned the camera wherever he was asked, and he answered viewer questions during the broadcast.
The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.
iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.