Taking the plunge into oceans

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

During a splashy presentation Monday at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Internet giant unveiled a feature in its Google Earth program that will allow users to swim through undersea canyons as deep as the Mariana Trench and encounter creatures like a critically endangered, prehistoric fish called the coelacanth.

Google also unveiled an interactive, 3-D map of Mars that enables visitors to whisk, as if by rocket ship, over Martian mountains that dwarf Everest and scan Martian rocks through the eyes of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

The 3-D Martian map is the first result of a 3-year-old agreement between Google and NASA’s Ames Research Center to bring the mountains of research on Mars to the public.


Besides getting close looks at rocks analyzed by the rovers to uncover Mars’ watery past, the new program will enable visitors to skim the surface through the eyes of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Other partners in the Mars project are Carnegie Mellon University and SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

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

The oceans project was inadvertently launched by a remark from renowned marine scientist Sylvia Earle to John Hanke, who helped create Google Earth. She loved the program, but she told Hanke that it had left out two-thirds of the planet.

“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.”

After that, Earle and others joined Google in a partnership to move beyond mountains and valleys to simulate the ocean’s vast surface and depths.

“Talk about a dream coming true,” Earle said. “Now anyone in just a few minutes can understand what it has taken me 50 years to understand.”

Google board member and former Vice President Al Gore, who 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.

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

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,” she said. “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.”