Plugin adds reef view to Google Earth

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A new online tool aimed at raising awareness of endangered ocean habitats was unveiled at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) world congress in Barcelona.

Conservationists working together with Google Inc have designed a new ~layer of Google Earth Outreach. This will allow people to go on a ~virtual dive and explore sensitive areas of the ocean around the world. A click on an icon will show video streams, photo galleries, conservation strategies and local stories from the marine protected areas (MPAs).

Google Earth project manager Steve Miller said the tool is the culmination of a yearlong project to let conservationists bring hard science to the general public in an entertaining way.

"We sat down and said 'let's open this up, let people around the world who might be passionate about their (marine protected area), who might be passionate about the water in their backyard, let them contribute to this Miller said.

Around 4500 areas around the world s oceans have been designated as protected areas - where fishing and other commercial and recreational activities are restricted or banned to protect the local marine life. Not all of these will be featured by the Google tool, but the creators are hoping that it will raise global awareness in this aspect of the environment.

The Government's conservation agency Natural England has contributed information on 43 marine sites around the coast of England that protect species such as the basking shark, seahorses, corals and algae.

Dr Helen Phillips, Natural England's chief executive, said she hoped the new MPA layer in Google Earth would bring the marine environment to life and raise awareness of the need to conserve and enhance it.

"There needs to be a change in attitudes towards protecting our oceans. The diversity of marine wildlife around England's coastline is exceptional; we have everything from whales through to microscopic phytoplankton.

"But we need an enhanced marine protection system to help conserve our undersea environment," she said.

The IUCN's new global web portal, Protect Planet Ocean, will also be launched this year and will provide information on the urgent need to strengthen the protection provided for the marine environment.

At the same congress, National Geographic revealed a project to produce a live underwater video feed of a coral reef, off Belize in Central America, WildCam Belize Reef. This will be the first project of its kind to produce non-stop footage.