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Google Earth takes users to the sea

Version 5.0 has an oceans feature that shows the bottom in 3-D and can be combined with electronic charts

Google Earth, the online mapmaker and geographer, has extended its reach beyond the world’s land masses to its oceans their undersea topography and marine life with the launch of Google Earth 5.0 and its oceans feature.

Our 'blue marble' has fascinated scientist and laymen alike since the earliest satellite images.

Three years in development, Google’s Oceans launched Feb. 2 in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences, a research institution where deep-water ocean researcher Sylvia Earle, “the lady of the deep,” once worked. Now explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, Earle was a prime mover in getting Google Earth to take on oceans, says Liz Taylor, president of Doer Marine, a company Earle co-founded to develop deep-sea vehicles.

The story of Oceans goes back three years to a conference in Spain, where Earle met Google Earth director John Hanke. Taylor says Earle expressed her admiration for Google Earth, but opined that it ought to be called “Google Dirt” since it didn’t include oceans. “That was a stab in the heart,” Taylor says.

At the launch, addressing a crowd that included former Vice President Al Gore, singer Jimmy Buffett and legions of scientists and environmental educators, Google CEO Eric Schmidt says his mapmakers decided then to broaden their vision to include the three-quarters of the earth’s surface that lies under water.

He describes the oceans feature unapologetically as an educational tool, one that hopefully will be used to help protect the oceans and ocean life.

“In discussions about climate change, the world’s oceans are often overlooked despite being an integral part of the issue,” he says. “About one-third of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere ends up in the oceans. “Furthermore, biodiversity loss in our oceans in the next 20 to 30 years will be roughly equivalent to losing an entire Amazon rain forest, but this goes unnoticed because we can’t see it. This is why today’s launch of Google Earth 5.0 is so important — it gives us an opportunity to change everyone’s perspective.”

The grand (virtual) tour

Oceans takes Google Earth users under the sea to explore 3-D terrain created from bathymetric data and provides “expert content” — video and still pop-ups about the sea, its creatures, the climate, shipwrecks, marine sanctuaries, undersea exploration, recreational opportunities and environmental challenges.

More than 50 educational, environmental, research and governmental organizations and agencies — NOAA, the U.S. Navy, the BBC, the Cousteau Society, the New England and Monterey Bay aquariums, and National Geographic Society among them — contributed more than 20,000 pieces of new content to Google Earth.

New York Harbor, as depicted by Google Earth, with NOAA charts integrated by EarthNC.

Users also can provide their own insight into parts of the oceans they know best. “Virtual travelers to Hawaii, for example, can examine underwater volcanoes, see videos about the exotic marine life of the region, read about nearby shipwrecks and contribute photos and videos of favorite surf spots,” Google says.

“A picture is worth 1,000 words,” says Taylor, whose company worked closely with Google and helped recruit an advisory board for the oceans project.

She says Oceans’ content focuses on areas with stories rich in history or resources or environmental challenge that have broad appeal — the Bermuda Triangle, the Gulf of Mexico, California’s Monterey Bay, the Mediterranean, Hawaii, the Arctic and Antarctic oceans, the Galapagos and miscellaneous waters with unique features like the wreckage of Titanic.

She says the toughest part of the project was gathering the bathymetric data to map the bottom in 3-D. Most of that information comes through use agreements with government agencies such as the Navy, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Reaching those agreements “took every minute of those three years,” she says.

Beside the oceans features, the new version of Google also introduces historical imagery, a feature that enables users to virtually travel back in time through archival satellite and aerial imagery; a Touring function allows users to create custom tours of various locations, terrain and content, add narration and share it with the world; and Google Mars 3-D, which features high-resolution imagery and terrain of the Red Planet.

Taylor and others see the Oceans feature as a powerful tool for educating Google Earth’s estimated 300 million users about the ocean and advocating for it. Advocacy groups have used Google Earth’s powerful graphics, mapping and storytelling features to campaign against genocide in Darfor, strip mining in West Virginia and logging in the Northwest.

“The whole idea [of Oceans] was to begin to impress on the public the importance of oceans,” Taylor says, to tell the story of why they matter in an engaging way and present the latest scientific findings about them — again, in a compelling format. “We’re hopeful that we’ll see people get interested in looking at the ocean currents and seeing where their trash goes, or tracking containers washed off ships on Google Ocean,” she says.

Google Earth 5.0, with all these features, can be downloaded for free. An upgraded version, Google Earth Pro, for business use costs $400.

On-the-water application

A two-year-old DelRey Beach, Fla., firm, EarthNC (, has piggybacked on Google Earth 5.0, using it as a platform for chart, cruising guide and weather services for boaters — both free and for a fee.

“Most people already know how to use Google Earth,” says EarthNC founder and director Virgil Zetterlind. “We just add additional layers to it.”

One of those layers is nautical charts, both NOAA digital electronic navigation charts (ENC) and raster charts (digitized copies of paper charts) for most U.S. coastal waters and the Atlantic and Gulf intracoastal waterways, and Army Corps of Engineers ENCs for much of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee/Tombigbee rivers, and charts for the Abacos, Berry, Bimini, Grand Bahama, and New Providence islands in the Bahamas.

New from EarthNC are aerial photos of coastal harbors, marinas, inlets and waterways from, another overlay on the Google Earth template that Zetterlind says mariners can use as an aid to navigation. Other new overlays: YouTube videos of boating, fishing and sailing at destinations around the world that can be pulled up at the click of the mouse, and NOAA raster charts overlaid on Google Earth’s 3-D ocean floor.

Overlays already in the hopper, many of them available for free, are: buoys and lights overlaid on Google Earth satellite maps, Florida and Ohio boat ramps with directions to how to get to them, number of parking places, fees and services; wind, waves, temperature and current data from 750 NOAA weather buoys; tide predictions; NEXAD radar real-time displays and National Weather Service warnings; ship weather forecasts and reports; local wrecks and reefs; dive destinations; a trip and route planner; marinas and marine services; NOAA wrecks and obstructions data; points of interest at destinations; estuarine bathymetry; real-time online boat tracking; and other information.

Zetterlind says his customers number in the thousands, among them boaters, commercial captains on the Intracoastal Waterway and Gulf of Mexico, and government users — especially emergency management planners.

Many use the information he overlays on Google Earth to plan cruises at home on their computers; others buy the DVD version of his charts and overlays so they can view them on a personal computer on their boat as they cruise — without connecting to the Internet, he says. Online use of all EarthNC’s charts and overlays costs $30 a year; the DVD version (which can be updated) with GPS trip-planning capabilities is $150; just the charts on DVD costs $50.

Zetterlind expects he soon will make EarthNC available on Apple’s iPhone, which has built-in GPS. “That will be pretty neat,” he says. He also wants to beef up EarthNC with more overlays for anglers, including what is biting where at what time of year, seasonal fishing regulations and local boating regulations.

“For a lot of the boating stuff, if it has anything to do with a place, then a map is a lot more intuitive guide than text,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.