How we built a virtual coral reef

By Anna Kozlova

The day is bright and windy. The sun shines from right above the head. The wind blows rapidly, carrying sand particles and plastic rubbish along the desert coastline. A typical winter day in Dahab, a tiny village in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. The coast is completely empty and looks abandoned – just a winding line where the yellowish desert meets the strikingly blue sea. The tide has already reached its highest point, hiding dark coral spots on the reef plateau. The only thing that disturbs this emptiness is an old truck covered with diving stickers, parked next to the water’s edge. Two people next to it are doing something with a big black box. A minute later, packed in drysuits with scuba tanks behind their shoulders, they slowly carry that strange box to the water, holding it by sides. 

Three dimensional

Those two divers – my colleague Andrey and I – have been diving here at the same time every day for the last month. The mysterious black box is our DIY system for 3D stereo underwater filming. It hides two cameras inside, fixed with millimetre accuracy on a rigid aluminium frame. A half-transparent mirror separates one camera from another, diagonally. It is covered entirely from the sun and sand by bulky black plastic blinds. 

This construction, also known in the filmmaker’s world as a “mirror 3D rig”, is the pride of Andrey. Together, with this rig, we decided to show the life of a real coral reef to those who have never see one in their lives. The 3D rig is needed if one wants to create the illusion of a 3-dimensional video. One camera will film exactly what it sees and the other, turned upside down and angled by 90 degrees, will capture the video reflected in the mirror. Combined in post-production, these two images result in a 3D video.

A Virtual Coral Reef

Our idea is to make a virtual coral reef based on 3D video of the real one. In a certain sense, we are creating a digital copy of everyday coral reef life, capturing in detail what we observe. 

The life we capture

A school of little translucent fish hover over the Acropora coral pinnacle. They are moving united and repeatedly, backwards and forwards, like one grey cloud. The cloud expands and shrinks in monotonous rhythm, breathing and pulsating like a heartbeat. As a big silvery tuna rapidly approaches, the fish-cloud falls apart and the fish rush away to hide in crevices of a coral head. This cycle repeats every twenty or thirty minutes – a monotonous wiggle of fish-cloud, a quick disappearance and a slow release once the danger is gone. 

An octopus shows its tentacles from underneath a stone. It notices our black box; brown spots and thorns immediately cover its amorphous body. It watches us with apparent interest, not knowing exactly what the smarter strategy would be; to crawl away and hide, or to use its whole arsenal of tricks to scare the strange alien creatures.

As the sun declines, the escadrille of gorgeous lionfish starts to float above the reef plateau. They move in a line towards us. Red and spiny, these sea predators frighteningly hover above schools of reef fish. Evenly and solemnly swinging in the backlight, the silhouettes of their poisonous spines move in, closer and closer. Unlike the darting behavior of tuna, lionfish don’t rush for their prey. They swim slowly, merely moving their fins and then, in the twinkling of an eye, they fold their splendid plumage, turning into an oblong, inconspicuous fish to make an abrupt deadly side throw with their bodies. Those who don’t hide will most likely be killed.

The sun is now hiding beneath the layers of the Sinai mountains. The tide is lowering, exposing the higher tops of the corals to the air. The current brings fine sand particles that lower the visibility and settle on our mirror. It’s time to ascend. We spent 2,5 hours underwater in one place, being grateful observers, carefully capturing reef life. Our typical working depth is about 6 meters. It gives us quite a bit of freedom, both with air supply and the decompression limits, so we can concentrate on what we are doing.

Moscow, Russia – a new way to see fish

A big dark hall is filled with kids and some adults. They all are wearing 3D glasses. One of the adults, a tall smiling woman says, “Come on. It’s time to start. What you will see in front of you is a real coral reef”. She continues, standing next to the big screen: “All the creatures you see here are animals. No plants at all”. The tall woman, Anna, is a school biology teacher. She took her students here to teach a class. In virtual reality, she is able to show them what real coral polyps look like, what are echinoderms, and what is the real behavior of lionfish. All this is done without any harm to the real animals, without any need to keep them in captivity, in aquariums. 

A minute later, the kids are completely immersed by another reality. They seem to have forgotten about snow and the cold outside. Walking from one screen to another, they can relive the moment from the reef’s daily life. They move slowly with the current, just like the yellow soft coral. They shrink back, as a tuna fish approaches, and they lean forward with the translucent fish when the danger disappears.

A new connection with the sea

An hour later, the lesson is about to come to an end.  I can clearly see that these kids received an experience that changed their perception of marine biology and, hopefully, their lives. It was so much more than a formal lesson where, in the best case scenario, they could have touched a dried and broken sea urchin and looked at pictures in a book. Instead, in the last hour, they formed an emotional connection with the ocean which will stay with them forever. And I’m happy, so happy, that I can share my love for the underwater world in the way that is so distinctive and memorable.

P.S. We have recently modified our virtual museum. Now, it’s known by the name Coral Truck, located in a truck and is preparing for a world tour. Its mission is to bring the coral reef to places where it’s not possible to observe a real one.

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