The United States is home to many underwater treasures: the haunting shipwrecks of Thunder Bay, the colorful corals of Gray’s Reef, the barnacle-covered statue of Christ in the Florida Keys.

For most Americans, however, these sights are out of reach. Though half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coast, only a tiny fraction fewer than 5 percent, according to some industry estimates actively dive or snorkel.

But thanks to an online project spearheaded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA), everyone can now experience these underwater wonders in vivid detail.

Diving knowledge isn’t required and you won’t even get wet; all you need is a smartphone, tablet or computer.

The Virtual Dive Gallery, launched earlier this month, allows users to explore U.S. national marine sanctuaries online.

There are currently 360-degree, virtual reality images of five sanctuaries available: the ship graveyard of Thunder Bay in Lake Huron, the Florida Keys, Gray’s Reef in Georgia, Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico, and the coral reefs around American Samoa.

A virtual reality headset isn’t necessary to enjoy the images, but makes the experience all the more true to life.

“We can put a window to the ocean in the palm of someone’s hand and let them explore the underwater world and national marine sanctuaries through that window,” said Mitchell Tartt, chief of the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Conservation Science Division.

This window doesn’t introduce people just to the beauty of underwater environments, but to the tragedies found there too.

Climate change, pollution and other human actions are damaging many marine sanctuaries in the U.S., said NOAA — destruction that many Americans will never see firsthand.

The virtual gallery is a way for people to better connect with these problems by witnessing the degradation for themselves.

The gallery currently includes images from American Samoa of staghorn corals before, during and after a 2015 bleaching event. Bleaching, caused by warming temperatures and pollution, is devastating reefs worldwide.

People can also explore images of bleached corals in Flower Garden Banks, and invasive species like lionfish, which are wreaking havoc on ecosystems in sanctuaries like the Florida Keys.


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