Googling the Bounding Main



Early cartography bore the fearful notation “Here be dragons” for points beyond the existing boundaries of knowledge, far out in the cold uncharted seas. While Google Earth has long allowed us to safely explore the planet’s landmass via virtual flyover, until now the program gave no clue that anything at all existed on the two-thirds of the Earth’s total area that lies under water. Google Earth’s oceans were represented by blank blue spaces. Here were (undigitized) dragons.

In January, Google Earth unveiled upgraded ocean images that for the first time will allow computer users to check out detailed topographic maps reflecting the undersea landscape of the abyss and continental shelves — and rougher areas where less is known. (The most detailed views are found closest to coastlines.) Finally, the romance of the ocean as it exists in our heads can be clarified by pictures of the real thing.

A choice of 20 buttons in the Layers sidebar allows users to show or hide archives of information embedded at specific points in the seas, including oceanographic expedition logs, fish populations, and Navy maps of ocean conditions. I couldn’t help but watch a BBC video entitled Strange Floating Crabs anchored off the western coast of Panama. By typing “shipwreck Titanic” into the search bar, I was directed to the exact location of various parts of the ocean liner lying on the North Atlantic seabed. Clicking on each point brought up pop-up boxes of National Geographic images of the wreck.

The seas’ tidal pull on our imaginations stretches from the early voyages of Magellan to the aquatic expeditions of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and continues to exert a powerful attraction. Disney’s last three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, shameless mash-ups of earlier pirate films like Captain Blood, grossed a combined total of $2.6 billion at the box office, proving that the world still loves a scurvy knave and a good swashbuckling ride over the billows. And genuine treasure is still to be found under the waves: the HMS VIctory, sunken in 1744, was located in 2008 in the English Channel, its solid bronze cannons and 4 tons of gold coins intact.

Using Google Earth wasn’t exactly as I imagined: I thought it would be more like swimming around underwater and looking at things, but it was plenty cool just the same. The thousands of clickable information bits scattered in Google’s images of the ocean are little sunken treasures in themselves, allowing us to explore these unreachable and mysterious parts of our planet without getting wet.


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