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A marine biologist using VR to save the world

A marine biologist uses virtual reality to take individuals closer to the ocean, Diving in the oceans, marine biologist Erika Woolsey has seen first-hand how climate change is damaging coral reefs and sea life. It has made her determined to find a way for others, including those who can't easily explore the ocean, to share her experience.

The San Francisco-based collective of scientists, filmmakers, and divers is taking people on immersive virtual dives to create a sense of "bring the ocean to everyone." raising awareness of reef damage and inspiring action to protect our seas. Through her non-profit, The Hydrous Woolsey is using virtual reality to "universal ocean empathy,"

VR dives to bring the oceans closer to your home Destruction of Coral reef
The biodiversity of rainforests rivals coral reefs as a habitat, with about 25 percent of marine species depending on them. Climate change, pollution and overfishing, however, have decimated around half the shallow water coral reefs in the world.

Woolsey, 36, gave an intimate understanding of the threats facing reefs through two decades of underwater exploration. "I've seen first-hand this ... shift from a healthy, colorful coral reef, to what looks like a moonscape," Woolsey says. "When the coral goes ... so do the fish, so do the other animals that depend on the reef and human societies that rely on those ecosystems for their livelihood."

With their award-winning film "Immerse." the Hydrous team set out to recreate this experience. Intended to view with a VR headset, viewers join Woolsey for a nine-minute guided virtual dive on the coral reefs off Palau's western Pacific Island, immersed in a 360-degree underwater view.

Before witnessing the reefs' deterioration, they swim alongside manta rays, sea turtles and sharks. Experience often elicits powerful responses. "As soon as people take off that headset and look me in the eye, they want to tell me a story about their ocean experience," Woolsey says. "It's that human connection to our ocean that will solve our ocean problems."
"Immerse" premiered at the 2017 International Ocean Film Festival and has won awards, including the Official Selection of Earth X Film 2019. Woolsey has also led live virtual dive events at the National Geographic VR Theater in Washington in 2019, including guiding 450 participants.

In a Pandemic VR
It was, however, in the past year, during global lockdowns, that virtual dives really came into their own. Nearly 1 million people, aged eight to 90, have taken part in virtual dives since June 2020. Woolsey says the dives also offer people a connection that goes beyond the ocean, a much-needed "tool for teleportation" when people confined to their homes.
Manta ray swimming could help save them

Manta ray swimming could help save them
"Right now, we're not only disconnected from our oceans but also each other, so these dives are a wonderful tool to connect us more to our natural environments and to each other," she says.

Woolsey hopes that advances in camera technology will enable her team to "take more and more people to places in the ocean that are under-explored ... places further away from human civilization." 

They are developing a virtual experience that will put the participant in the role of a marine biologist, tracking and monitoring manta rays, conducting underwater biodiversity surveys, and even transporting the participant.

Woolsey's message about our oceans, ultimately, is positive. VR technology not only shows the state in which our oceans are, but how they recover. It is this that, after the experience, Woolsey says people take away with them. She says, "When we ascend, we ascend with a message of hope that we bring back to land."

The article was written by Amit Caesar

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