Exploring the world’s best-known coral environment, on the east coast of Australia, David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef is an interactive journey around this “beautiful but threatened world”. It delves in detail into some of the 1,500 fish species and 600 coral types that live on the 133,000-square-mile reef, to tell the story of one of Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems and the damage done to it by climate change – through interactive timelapses, videos, weather maps and even a “mantis shrimp vision” tool. As part of the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, which investigates coral bleaching around the world, the Ocean Agency has created a series of 360 degree images on Google Earth (click through the tabs bottom left to fly between locations). Also try AirPano,which offers a glimpse of a multicoloured reef near Komodo Island in Indonesia via an interactive photo.
Swimming with sharks
Duuun dun. Duuun dun. Dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun … Perhaps nothing will ever beat that film when it comes to galeophobia-inducing experiences, but there are plenty of virtual ways of getting up close, too . The great white can grow up to six metres in length and reach a speed of 35 mph. It gets spine-tinglingly close in this 360 degree video in Guadalupe Island off Mexico’s Baja California, where the viewer sits just outside the cage. Elsewhere, National Geographic has created an immersive video of a face-to-face encounter with a hammerhead shark in the Bahamas. The Discovery Channel captured a whale shark – the largest fish on the planet- in 360 degrees. And the MythBusters team from the same channel also shot around 30 reef sharks together near the Bahamas’ Ray of Hope shipwreck, as part of a wider research project on sharks’ fears. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of one on Exploreorg’s webcam stream in the Atlantic off Cape Fear, North Carolina.
Swim with wild dolphins in a 360-degree video by the Dolphin Swim Club, created as a “cruelty-free alternative for so-called dolphin-assisted therapies with captive dolphins”. The research organisation has also developed waterproof UnderwaterVR goggles, allowing swimmers to experience virtual wild dolphins and associated therapeutic effects. In the Bahamas, the Dolphin Project calls for viewers to take the pledge, during its 360-degree video, not to buy tickets to shows that use captive dolphins. And BBC Earth’s Our Blue Planet VR video series includes an immersive virtual reality experience of bottlenose dolphins and oceanic manta rays. A marine biologist narrates the scene off the coast of Mexico, near San Benedicto island, and although filmed for 3D, it is worth a watch even without a VR headset.
Kelp forest coastlines
Underwater jungles of kelp cover around 25% of the world’s coastlines, and each wide blade of the ribbon-like seaweed can grow up to two feet in a day. Helping to fight climate change, kelp is highly efficient at storing carbon from the atmosphere – an estimated 600m tonnes a year, around twice as much as the UK emits. Ocean First Education, which provides marine science courses online, has created an immersive video venturing through Anacapa’s kelp forests in California’s Channel Islands national park, which also has its own webcam stream. The nearby Channel Islands national marine sanctuary takes a narrated virtual dive with some playful sea lions. Elsewhere, BBC Earth’s 360 degree footage takes a dip in a Norwegian kelp forest, and another at Monterey Bay, California.
Exploring shipwrecks usually requires a diving qualification, but these interactive virtual tours take viewers into underwater sites without any danger. There are several 360-degree videos of exploration around New Zealand, including the HMNZS Canterbury, a frigate warship, sunk to provide an artificial reef and dive wreck in 2007; and the MS Mikhail Lermontov, an ocean liner. The latter’s central staircase and starboard entrance collapsed after an earthquake in 2016, so this video is now the only way to see these features. Another 360-degree video tour with voiceover narration explores the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm, an armed Merchant Navy ship that was bombed in October 1941 near Ras Muhammad in the Red Sea, and is now a well-known diving site.
There is something magical about sea turtles – they can hold their breath under the water for up to seven hours, the live to around 100 years old, and their favourite meal is jellyfish with seagrass. National Geographic shot this 360-degree video in Buck Island Reef in the US Virgin Islands, one of the first protected marine monuments in the US, created in 1961. It includes a rare glimpse of tiny hatchlings as they head from nest to sea at night. An Airpano video captures a larger adult sea turtle off Cuba’s largely uninhabited Jardines de la Reina archipelago in the Caribbean. Almost all species of turtles are now endangered, facing an increasingly difficult battle against a range of threats – from mistaking plastic for food to poaching and light pollution on the beach.
Roaming for rays
Rays have the greatest brain-to-size ratio of any fish. The largest is the manta ray, which can grow up to seven metres in length. One of the best places to see them is Indonesia, as seen in this 360 video by AirPano, shot off the coast of Raja Ampat, West Papua, which captures one of the giant aquatic gliders over a reef. The Discovery Channel also caught a close-up immersive video of mantas swimming with whale sharks, and has a marine biologist explaining why anchor species like these are vital to the survival of the oceans. Often confused with manta rays, devil rays are their smaller cousin, with a mouth slightly under the face instead of in front, and pointier “horns”. This 360-degree video takes a dip with a group of them off the coast Santa Maria island in the Azores.
Floating with jellyfish
They may not have a brain, a heart, bones or eyes, but jellyfish can be deadly. The gelatinous sea creatures have a “nerve net” controlling feeding, swimming and protective actions, and often a set of trailing stinging tentacles – which in the case of the near-invisible sea wasp, the deadliest jellyfish on Earth, can kill a human with a dose the size of a grain of salt. Capturing the less terrifying, stingless, medusa species, in a lagoon in Raja Ampat in Indonesia, AirPano’s 360-degree video takes viewers in among a vast swarm – known as a smack of jellyfish. Another hypnotic immersive video shows a singular pulsating translucent blob off Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina.
Schooling and shoaling
The way fish move instinctively in coordinated unison is known as schooling, which is different to shoaling, when fish stick together for social reasons, such as defence, foraging or finding a mate. The shape of the schooling depends on the species – some form rectangles or ovals with back-and-forth swimming; others move in tornado sequences. Showing a variety of formations, this AirPano 360-degree video shows thousands of caranx and other reef fish near Malpelo Island, 300 miles off Colombia’sPacific coast. Another set of still 360-degree images, shot in the New Caledonian barrier reef in the South Pacific – the longest continuous barrier reef in the world at 930 miles – shows hundreds more colourful reef varieties (click the white arrows to explore the site).
Other monsters of the deep
With a brain in the middle of the body controlling the nervous system, and several million neurons in their eight tentacles (allowing them to touch, taste and move objects independently), octopus are, not surprisingly, highly intelligent animals. They have been seen unscrewing jars, carrying coconut shells as armour and stacking rocks. Try to find the octopus at the start of this 360-degree video by YouTuber Frédéric B – it is almost completely disguised and continually changes the colour of its skin as it darts around, camouflaging itself against the rocky seabed. A narrated BBC Earth 360-degree diving video (shot for 3D headsets where possible), descends with a dive team at Browning Wall in British Columbia, Canada, passing giant Pacific octopus, a huge wolf eel out hunting, sea lions and starfish.