Landscape format / close-up shot / a Coral trout swims amongst soft corals growing on the wreck or the "S. S. Yongala"

Sydney - Okay, how about a quick, free diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s biggest collection of coral islands, 900 of them, and a treasure chest of fish, birds, corals, whales, dugongs and the rest of the richest, biggest underwater reserve in the world?

It won’t cost you any airfares, boat charters, hotels and suntan oil or dive tanks. In fact you don’t even have to get wet to enjoy this 360-degree visual wandering through a marine park nearly the size of the whole of Zimbabwe.

Just switch on your computer – or your friend’s if its screen is bigger – and search Google Streetscene coverage of the Great Barrier Reef .

It’s amazing. I’ve wandered through it for two enthralling one-hour sessions and haven’t got anywhere near the end of it.

It’s an immense project that has already taken months of hard work – diving with vast multi-goggle-lensed cameras the size of a small wheelbarrow that take in a 360-degree view in which you move around by tapping directional arrows.

The quality is high-definition, panoramic and superb.

In years gone by, dammit, I once had a share of a little tropical island off the Queensland coast of Australia, close to Brisbane. But every chance we got, we would sail up to Mackay where the Great Barrier Reef gets serious and dive and fish and dive.

But Google’s amazing filming – in collaboration with the Catlin Seaview Survey’s study of the health of Australia’s coral reefs – has already shown me a heck of lot more than I ever saw on those paradisiacal holidays.

The Great Barrier Reef is mind-bending. Host to 1 500 species of fish, 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises – including the little old dwarf mink whale – 2 195 plant species, six kinds of seagoing turtles, 215 bird species (including the white breasted sea eagle), 400 kinds of coral and 500 kinds of seaweed.

The Reef’s 2 900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretch over 350 000 square kilometres and, like the Great Wall of China, is easily identifiable from Space. No wonder it has become a United Nations World Heritage Site.

The unique survey of the great reef complex is important for more than endless virtual diving. It is also a record of peripheral damage – two million visitors spend $1 billion every year to dunk themselves in this magic world of life and colour.

Australia defends the reef well – with occasional slip-ups. The latest is a drift of silt from an ill-planned harbour excavation in the coastal town of Gladstone at the southern end of the reef. Nobody figured the silt would travel out to the nearby coral.

Climate change, especially ocean warming is also a threat to coral throughout the tropical world. Temperature rises increase sun bleaching, which kills coral. Cyclones strip bare parts of it. Vast outlaw trawlers from Japan and Russia dredge away coral, despite international sanctions against them. Crown of Thorns Starfish eat soft coral and regular plagues of them eat a lot of it. Travelling oil spills are also threats.

Already the Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half the live coral it had in 1985. Unless we get a grip on climate change, Google’s massive underwater photographic achievement might one day become the only record of the Great Barrier Reef’s life and beauty.

But right now there’s plenty of it in good health. Australian regulation defends it from tourist damage in many ways. Tourist operatives are not allowed to cruise around and anchor wherever they like. Permanent mooring points are sited to protect the coral and there are severe penalties for not using them.

A large proportion of the Great reef is protected as a declared marine reservation and even outside this underwater park fishing is protected from trawling and other destructive methods.

Indigenous communities with historic rights to live off the southern reef are regulated in fishing and the harvesting of dugongs, which have a religious significance to some of the communities, is limited. Cold storage facilities have been provided to minimise cropping of the big, harmless mammals which originated the legend of mermaids.

Protecting the world’s reefs is made more difficult by the fact that most people who live near them and use them cannot accept that coral is a living organism and if the billions of tiny organisms known as polyps are killed the reef they have built dies with them.

The Google and Catlin Seaview Survey is doing a lot to educate reef users and neighbours on needs and ways to protect these ecosystems.

So enjoy your virtual diving. It is going to be a valuable part of saving the world’s coral reefs. - Sunday Tribune