Scuba diving is a wonderful sport, exposing a whole other beautiful world that few people see. However most amateur divers don’t see much of what is out there — the good spots can be far away and expensive to get to. The good spots are also rapidly changing into fair spots as climate change, pollution and overfishing all have their effects on the ocean. The world’s coral reefs, among the most dramatic and beautiful spots on the planet, are rapidly deteriorating. 

Since 2012 the Catlin Seaview Survey has been documenting reefs around the world. Their goal:

The XL Catlin Seaview Survey is creating a baseline record of the world’s coral reefs, in high-resolution 360-degree panoramic vision. It will enable change to be clearly monitored over time and will help scientists, policy makers and the public at large to see and understand the issues reefs are facing and work out what needs to be done to best protect coral reefs now and into the future. 
According to Catlin, we have already lost 40 percent of all corals over the last 30 years, and the loss will affect 500 million people who depend on it for food, coastal protection and tourist income.

It's an important scientific and technical achievement, documenting these reefs. They are using amazing technology; the SV11 camera works much like Google’s street view cameras do, taking 360-degree images every three seconds while swimming along at about 3 mph. One hopes that it doesn’t end up being a record of what we've lost and that the reefs actually do get protected. 

That's why it makes sense that the Catlin Survey has partnered with Google to put the surveys on Google Maps, so that anyone can dive right in using Google’s Street View. The more people who know about what’s going on under water, the more people who will do something to preserve the resource. The Google set of images is extraordinary, although ones like this of the whale don't add much to what you might get with a conventional photograph.

Where it really gets wonderful is down among the corals, and that's what the Catlin Survey is really about. You can crawl along the sea floor at the edge of the corals, drift over the top, swim among the schools of fish that hang around the reef because that's where the food is. It's almost like the real thing, but not quite. This is where I think Google sends the wrong message:

You don’t have to be a scuba diver — or even know how to swim — to explore and experience six of the ocean’s most incredible living coral reefs. Now, anyone can become the next virtual Jacques Cousteau and dive with sea turtles, fish and manta rays.
Even such a crisp view of such wonderful sites is no substitute for actually diving — the weightlessness of being under water, the feeling of swimming among sea lions in the Galapagos or even the diving among schools of fish just off Fort Lauderdale. If anything, I hope that these views encourage people to go out and try it instead of relying on Google.

The real thing is always better.

Related in MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Dive the great reefs of the world on Google Street View
The Catlin Survey is documenting the coral reefs of the world, and anyone can now watch them on Google Street View.