Google Ocean: Google's Digital Activism

It's an odd story in a way. One day a Texas gal from a ranching family falls in love with the ocean. She loves being in the water and the underwater world, and she has a life-changing 45-minute underwater encounter with a Cephalopod about the size of her thumb. Octopi are Cephalopods and scientists think they could be smarter than we are; some fringy researchers believe Cephalopods might be aliens from outer space or divine beings. Anyway, if you're going to hang around with a Cephalopod for 45 minutes, you're probably going to have what the Texan called "a seminal moment." It changed her life.

Over a span of thirty-five years, her above- water and underwater journey has taken her from the Texas Panhandle to Micronesia to Polynesia and the Caribbean, to work on coastal management, economic development, and research. Now she is a digital activist working to save our seas. Her name is Charlotte Vick, and she's the curator of the Explore the Ocean layer in Google Earth.

To understand what Google Ocean is, you download Google Earth, a free application that runs on your computer and allows you to fly over the globe like Superman or Wonder Woman. It's pretty hard to describe without actually experiencing it, but it gets a little stranger when you dive in and fly under the water, kind of like Aquaman. Once you're swimming around in your virtual sea you find, embedded right in the water, videos and images and articles that have been contributed by the likes of National Geographic, Lindblad Expeditions, The Cousteau Society and Dr. Sylvia Earle.

This is turbocharged armchair traveling, powered by the collective knowledge of the world's best ocean scientists and explorers.

Google Earth is "part of Google's mission to organize the world's knowledge and make it universally accessible," Charlotte said in an interview with me.

I'm thinking that sounds impossible and cocky. Thing is, though, it's happening, and with Google Ocean, happening in a way that is reinventing media. Giants in the nature film industry like MacGillivary Freeman Films are posting in Google Ocean, and also small-time but knowledgeable naturalists with flip cams.

"It's taking the storytelling of people who have been in the water and are fairly bursting with stories about what's important to pay attention to in the ocean. You're giving them an outlet to do that," said Charlotte. It's a global experience on your desktop, one you can't be part of without appreciating the value of the oceans. I think it could turn everyone into a digital activist. It's essential that everyone in the world realize that their very lives depend on keeping the oceans healthy.

Healthy oceans produce oxygen for us to breathe. The oxygen is produced by phytoplankton, bacteria and other tiny ocean creatures who make life on Earth possible for you and me.

Here's a digital experience that puts you in touch with the natural world, helps you appreciate some of the tiniest beings on the planet who produce the oxygen we breathe, and encounter the dedicated work of a Texan from the Panhandle who discovered a love for the ocean. What Charlotte Vick is doing resonates with me for another reason though, and probably the same reason her work resonates with other natural-science filmmakers. She's taking what scientists do and turning it into a story everyone can relate to.  By the way, Charlotte told me that ocean scientist Sylvia Earle also had an encounter with an octopus -- and this one's on video.