Saving the World’s Coral Reefs, One Virtual Dive at a Time

Justin Eure

Earth’s oceans are vast enough to seem incomprehensible. Their waters dominate our blue planet—the original home for all life on earth and host to countless essential ecosystems. Yet mystery shrouds the ocean depths, and many of us live comfortably removed from the ecological tragedies unfolding beneath the surface.

Some, like Erika Woolsey, literally dive into the sprawling, endangered deep and strive to expose the current plight and the promise of restoration.

Woolsey, a marine biologist and Ocean Design Fellow at Stanford University, grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and fell in love with the water at a young age.

Erika Woolsey in San Francisco

“I remember going tide-pooling as a little kid and being amazed by all the little critters crawling around near the sea,” Woolsey said. “Seeing marine mammals like sea lions and seals and harbor porpoises and seabirds, and just really feeling connected to it.”

Great blue heron by the San Francisco Bay

That relationship deepened in step with her education and dives around the world—encountering reefs “like no other world [she] could have imagined.” But the reverence and wonder were soon joined by compassion and concern as Woolsey explored reefs in the Maldives, Palau, Japan, and elsewhere. Catastrophic global bleaching events—where coral loses both life and color—raised the urgency as more than half the coral on earth died. She described visiting devastated reefs, a staggering emotional experience, as like exploring the ruins of ancient cities.

So Woolsey launched the Hydrous, a non-profit dedicated in large part to preserving the ocean and telling its stories. A belief that preservation follows passion shapes the Hydrous mission: The more people know and love the ocean, the more likely they are to care for it.

“The Hydrous began as a community of other marine scientists, of designers, educators, photographers, and people who just love the ocean,” she said. “Our goal was to share ocean environments that are threatened by human disturbances as well as anthropogenic climate change.”

But how does one bring the powerful, immersive experience of diving on coral reefs to people around the world? The rapidly evolving field of virtual reality held the answer.

I can’t bring everyone to the ocean, but through the magic of VR, I can bring the ocean to everyone.

Working with a team of scientists and storytellers—including the VR wizards of Horizon Productions—Woolsey created IMMERSE, a VR film exploring the beauty of the sea and the ongoing decimation of coral reefs.

Students watching IMMERSE on Lenovo’s Mirage Solo headsets

“There are so many barriers to visiting the ocean, whether it be distance, cost, or physical ability,” Woolsey said. “And with this VR technology we can recreate what it’s like to be underwater.”

The Hydrous motto is “open access oceans”—a commitment to bringing the sea to everyone on shore. The idea spun out into workshops, educational materials, and strong showings at film festivals. In the video above, students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in San Francisco experience their first virtual dive through IMMERSE. Calling it eye-opening would be an understatement.

This is just the tip of the now-melting iceberg. Visit the Hydrous website to learn more and become involved.

Scalable technologies like virtual reality have tremendous potential for engaging more of the population so people can become inspired to make changes. And collectively we can do so much to aid in the health of our ocean and the future of our blue planet.

Lenovo partners with Woolsey and the Hydrous team to provide powerful workstations for video rendering and ThinkPad laptops to use in the field. During World Oceans Month, follow Lenovo and LenovoNews on social and here on StoryHub to learn more about the Hydrous, the promise of emerging technology, and how VR inspires passion in future generations.

For more on the Lenovo technology that empowers the Hydrous, follow @ThinkStations on Twitter and @LenovoWorkStations on Instagram.

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