Modern-day Magellans can now explore the world’s oceans from the comfort of their desktops thanks to contributions from UCSB researchers to the newest version of Google Earth.

Ocean in Google Earth- a project developed in part by The Marine Science Institute at UCSB – launched earlier this week and allows users to dive beneath the sea’s surface and explore the world’s oceans. According to MSI Director Dr. Steven Gaines, the visual data from more than 4,500 Marine Protected Areas – regions of major ecological significance – were the focus of the project.

“Over the last few years, several researchers at MSI have been involved in evaluating how well MPAs have worked around the globe,” Gaines said. “Since these MPAs are from all over the world, they are a natural fit for Ocean in Google Earth. By providing data, animations, video and pictures, users can explore MPAs and see what they have done for the ocean.”

Gaines said that animations and information on Ocean in Google Earth show how various ecosystems have changed since MPAs were established.

“You can dive into the marine research at Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands and see how the size, abundance and diversity of fish have changed since the reserve was established,” Gaines said.

Gaines – who noted that most people do not have a sense of the oceans as a whole – said he believes that educational programs like Ocean in Google Earth will help people make informed environmental decisions

“Most people never experience the oceans directly,” Gaines said. “They may swim at the surface, but their personal experience with what is happening below is very limited. Our goal is to open a window on the ocean and use platforms such as Ocean in Google Earth to raise awareness on a wide range of ocean issues. We will all make better decisions about using and managing the oceans if we based these decisions on information.”

MSI Project Scientist Dr. Sarah Lester said that MSI aims to present scientific research for wider consumption by utilizing visual content.

“The idea is for people to see in a very visual way the data that would regularly be presented on a graph or in numbers,” Lester said. “That way it is interesting to a broad range of audiences.”

Lester said MSI will continue to develop Ocean in Google Earth.

“Only some of the reserves have videos, animations and pictures — our goal is to keep adding more information so no matter where you are in Google Earth, you can visually understand the data,” Lester said.

Lester said that accessing the animations on Ocean in Google Earth can be confusing, but that users can go to to view an online tour of the current MPAs. The animations show users specifically which species increased or decreased in biomass inside certain marine reserves.

With Ocean in Google Earth, Gaines said researchers will continue developing the technology and using it to examine a range of topics about the sea.

“The opportunities in Ocean in Google Earth are really endless,” Gaines said. “We intend to use this platform for a variety of educational and scientific efforts about the ocean.”

“Stay tuned,” he added.