Monaco's 'virtual dive' of Australia's Barrier Reef encourages ocean protection

Visitors experience the "Immersion" exhibition at Monaco's Oceanographic Museum on 17 July, 2020.
Visitors experience the "Immersion" exhibition at Monaco's Oceanographic Museum on 17 July, 2020. © Amanda Morrow, RFI

With its century-long mission of ocean protection forced into hiatus by Covid-19, Monaco's Oceanographic Museum has wasted no time in bringing to market its latest endeavour – an interactive recreation of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.


Clownfish, green sea turtles, giant manta rays and humpback whales help populate this “living” coral environment – projected in real-time over 30 minutes – which its makers hope will be engaging enough to strengthen public will to protect the oceans.

“Coral reefs cover only 0.2 percent of the oceans, but they are home to 30 percent of marine biodiversity,” says Robert Calcagno, the museum's CEO and a former environment minister. “Nevertheless, these oases of life are being threatened on a massive scale.”

While digitally constructing their underwater world, the exhibition's curators toyed with the idea of depicting coral bleaching – the reef has suffered three massive bleaching events over the past five years – as well as plastic pollution, but settled instead on creating a “virtual dive” of the reef in its most idyllic and pristine form.

“We wanted to offer a selection of the most beautiful diving moments in record time, to move and challenge the audience to consider the future of these ecosystems in danger,” says Eva Muller, who runs the museum's exhibition department.


Iconic reef species replicated in 3D

Taking place at a depth of 10 metres, the “Immersion” exhibition uses 40 projectors to create a four-sided (three walls and the floor) marine installation starring 3D computer-generated replicas of the Great Barrier Reef's eight most iconic species – among them the giant clam, potato cod, Maori wrasse and white-tip reef shark.

To ensure each creature is true to its real-world counterpart, scenographers worked with Australian divers who instructed on the movements, behaviours and physical appearance of each animal.

It was then the job of programming director Emmanuel Maa Berriet to bring the installation to life in real time. While the software behind the animation is essentially video-gaming technology, Berriet says his team went a step further, employing what are known as Boids – a mathematical technique used to recreate flocks of birds or, in this case, schools of fish.

“Boids are small digital points that follow three simple behaviours: repulsion, so they don't crash into each other; steering, so they can bring their speed into alignment with those around them; and flocking, which is their desire to rest in a group,” explains Berriet, creator of the AAASeed 3D software used create the Boids.

“This method has been studied by scientists in order to simulate group movement and obtain a result that is close to nature.”

The visuals are set to whale song and a gentle orchestra of reef sounds recorded by French bioacoustician Frédéric Bertucci, whose underwater harmony was then mixed and put to an original score by composer Pierre Caillot. The soft ocean melody is intended to add an element of majesty to the 650-square-metre aquatic sequence as it rolls from day to night.

3D humpback whales are among the star attractions of the "Immersion" exhibition at Monaco's Oceanographic Museum.
3D humpback whales are among the star attractions of the "Immersion" exhibition at Monaco's Oceanographic Museum. © Amanda Morrow, RFI

Promoting marine conservation

In line with the museum's mission of sharing knowledge of the oceans and generating public support for their conservation, “Immersion” seeks to provoke an emotional response by making the audience a part of the ecosystem under threat.

“What we have created is dream-like … we've used the beauty of the ocean and these emblematic species to reinforce the visitor's appreciation for a place that is inaccessible to many of us,” says the exhibition's development director, Bernard Reihac.

“This isn't just an exhibition – it's a collective experience designed to raise our awareness of the need to preserve our blue planet and its incredible diversity.”

A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impact of global warming of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels found that 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs would be lost by 2050. Temperture increases of 2C mean corals may never be able to grow back, the scientists warned as they called for urgent action to phase out fossil fuels.

Despite being the the world's biggest exporter of coal, Australia – which along with Monaco co-chairs of the International Coral Reef Initiative – is a vocal proponent of coral reef protection, says Brendan Berne, Australian ambassador to both Monaco and France.

“The Great Barrier Reef is the Amazon of the oceans; it's by far the largest coral reef in the world and Australians are custodians of this asset,” says Berne, who visited the exhibition ahead of its opening in a private viewing with Monaco's Prince Albert II – whose father was a pioneer of modern oceanography.

“Because I'm asthmatic, I'm not allowed to dive in the reef, but visiting the exhibition I felt like I was able to overcome that … this display is highly interactive and sophisticated – and it really does bring to life the beauty of that natural asset we have in Australia.”

  • The "Immersion" exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum, Monaco, runs until the end of 2021.

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