Google Earth takes a deep dive into the world’s oceans


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Google finally put the world’s oceans on the map.

During a splashy presentation at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco today, the Internet giant unveiled new water features for Google Earth, the online replica of the planet that anyone can search.

Three years ago, renowned marine scientist Sylvia Earle told John Hanke, who helped create Google Earth, that she loved the way the program helped people get to know the planet. But, she pointed out, Google had overlooked two-thirds of it.


‘She turned to me with an evil grin and said: ‘Why don’t you rename it Google Dirt?’ That kind of got under my skin,’ Hanke recalled. ‘She was right. We had been blind to the ocean.’

It reminded him of a Marshall McLuhan quotation: ‘We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.’

The oceans shaped Hanke’s priorities. Earle and others joined Google in a partnership to move beyond mountains and valleys to simulate the ocean so anyone can explore its vast surface and depths online.

It began as a side project for some software engineers ...

... working on Google Earth. More recently it became a full-time obsession, reflecting the experience of other travelers who return from sea voyages as passionate conservationists. The team spent months collaborating with partners to collect new data, including detailed topography of continental shelves and other remote places of underwater wonder.

Anyone can download the latest ocean-enabled version at the Google Earth home page. Earle said the program brings the ocean to life: Users can swim like a dolphin along the Monterey Canyon (deep in the Monterey Bay), discover critically endangered prehistoric fish called coelacanth and descend seven miles into the abyss known as the Mariana Trench.

Another feature being released in the new version of Google Earth: historical imagery that allows you to scroll back through decades of satellite images. Another function, called Touring, allows you to create narrated tours on land and above and below the surface of the sea.

Google Earth is one of the company’s most popular products. The software has been downloaded on half a billion computers.


‘Talk about a dream coming true,’ said Earle, who has struggled for decades to find a way to connect the public to the ocean. ‘Now anyone in just a few minutes can understand what it has taken me 50 years to understand, that the ocean really matters, that in fact the world is blue.’

To drive home that point, Google presented the new technology to a group of fourth-graders, whom Greg Farrington, executive director of the California Academy of Science, called the world’s greatest renewable resource.

Google hopes to inspire the public to push for more marine exploration. Only 5% of the ocean floor has been mapped in any detail, and less than 1% of the oceans are designated marine protected areas.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said: ‘This is a platform for science and research and literally understanding the future of the world.’ Former vice president and Google board member Al Gore, who also attended the event, called the latest version of Google Earth ‘an extremely powerful educational tool’ that he hoped would influence the Climate Conference in Copenhagen later this year. While in office, Gore sponsored NASA’s work to create a digital Earth. Hanke said that work helped Google Earth.

Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast in Imperial Beach, which works to protect and preserve coastal ecosystems and wildlife in California and Latin America, said the new tool would transform ocean research.

Dedina said the ability to see the ocean floor used to be reserved for expensive scientific studies: ‘It is hard for me to identify ocean hot spots to present to policymakers. Now I have the capacity to cost-effectively zoom in on my desktop and print what areas need to be conserved and what the potential impact of human activities might have on the area.


‘This type of technology allows us to compete in the global marketplace without having to be huge. What would have cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and would have been the domain of huge research institutions and universities now is available at almost no cost. You just download it off the Internet and use it.’

The crowd was filled with like-minded environmentalists inspired by Google’s vision. The guests of honor were a who’s who of ocean science and research. The crowd favorite was country legend Jimmy Buffett.

‘I have never stood behind a lectern with bubbles in it before,’ Buffett joked.

Buffett -- whose lyrics include ‘Mother, mother ocean, I have heard your call. Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was 3 feet tall’ -- said that he has been more proud of being featured in National Geographic magazine than Rolling Stone. Music is a natural companion on ocean expeditions, he said. His involvement with Google Earth was conceived on a boat in the French West Indies, he added.

Buffett found his philosophy on a bumper sticker: ‘Without geography, you are nowhere.’ ‘Now I know where I am thanks to Google,’ Buffett said.

Then he picked up his guitar and strummed ‘Son of a Son of a Sailor,’ cleverly inserting Google Earth into the lyrics.

He quipped: ‘We’ll see this version on YouTube real quick, won’t we?’

Buffett got a standing ovation.

Corrected, 3:25 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to the Mariana Trench as the Marietta Trench.

-- Jessica Guynn