The ocean provides more than half of the oxygen in our atmosphere, contains 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, and if it were an economy it would be the eighth largest in the world! If you have spent any time in this massive expanse of blue, you’ll know the power and magic that lies within it. Today’s guest is on a mission to make sure that you get that opportunity. Scientist, divemaster, marine biologist, virtual reality filmmaker, and National Geographic Explorer, Erika Woolsey is the founder of non-profit organization, The Hydrous. The Hydrous uses virtual reality technology to recreate ocean experiences and inspire the next generation of ocean explorers, who will play a vital role in protecting our ocean, our planet and our species. Join us as we take a dive into the depths of the magnificent and still largely undiscovered underwater world.
Key Points From This Episode:
● Sobering learnings that Erika had during the 7 years she spent studying the Great Barrier Reef.
● Goals that Erika hopes to achieve through her non-profit, The Hydrous.
● Physiological changes that occur within us when we are underwater.
● The power of the ocean in shaping our planet and our lives.
● A brief explanation of each of the seven ocean literacy principles.
● How little we know about the ocean that sustains us.
● Human activities that are severely harming coral reefs.
● Decade of Ocean Empathy; a partnership between The Hydrous and the United Nations.
● An explanation of Erika’s film project, Immerse.
● Erika’s experience at National Geographic’s Virtual Reality Theatre.
● Explore; one of Erika’s recent ventures.
● The augmented reality project that Erika has brought to life through a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and Adobe.
● Examples of how virtual/augmented reality ocean immersions can change people’s lives.
“If the ocean were an economy, it would be the eighth largest economy in the world. Unfortunately, it’s also very much out of sight, out of mind, as well as under-protected and overexploited.” — @ErikaWoolseyPhD [0:12:07]
“That sense of exploration and pushing limits; that can be done on this planet. You don’t have to go into outer space to make incredible discoveries.” — @ErikaWoolseyPhD [0:19:07]
“Not only do corals have climate change to worry about, they are also severely impacted by the effects of overfishing and marine pollution and habitat destruction . . . it’s important to, while we combat climate change, also look at marine protection.” — @ErikaWoolseyPhD [0:22:54]
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Erika Woolsey and The Hydrous
The Decade of Ocean Empathy
21st Century Mermaids Podcast on Instagram and Apple Podcasts
Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols
Virtual Human Interaction Lab
United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development
[0:00:04.5] PC: Welcome to Good Vibes with VIVE. I’m your host, Pearly Chen. I’m an executive with global technology company, HTC. As a mother of three young girls, I’ve loved building and investing in profound immersive technologies that make a positive difference in people’s lives. Each week, I speak with founders at the forefront of VR, AR, and the metaverse. All of them inspire me and some, I’ve been lucky enough to back as an investor. Tune in every week to hear some of the most inspiring closed-door conversations, and walk away informed, inspired, and full of good vibes.
[0:00:46.2] PC: I just came back from reef dive right here from my home, actually several throughout the course of the day through virtual reality and through augmented reality, both of which are thanks to Erika Woolsey who is with me today here and I’m just so excited to be joined by her today to talk about her life’s work of bringing the ocean to everyone.
Although many of her very accomplished titles like PhD, marine biologist, coral reef scientist, a divemaster, award-winning virtual reality filmmaker, and of course, founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization, The Hydrous. My favorite is The National Geographic Explorer, this honor is only conferred to a very small group of infinitely curious people around the world who are passionate about our planet and making it a better place through action.
Welcome, Erika to this podcast. Among that long list of accomplished titles, which one do you identify with the most?
[0:01:55.4] EW: I think it might have taken me a while but I identify with scientists the most because it’s sort of the umbrella term for all of the things I do and it means that I’m curious, I love to explore and I also love to share what I find.
[0:02:11.1] PC: That really explains in a nutshell, isn’t it? For what Hydrous is all about, what your life’s work is all about, you and I both share the passion for water through exploring and sharing the magic and power of water but not everyone is as fortunate to have access to the ocean and feel its magic and understand and learn more about it.
Hence, I love this mission of yours to use science, to use storytelling, virtual reality technologies to bring that experience to everyone around the world. Please, Erika, tell us about your journey, what got you here?
[0:02:48.5] EW: Thank you Pearly, that’s just such a kind introduction and I mean, what got me here was my love for the ocean. I grew up on the coast in the San Francisco Bay Area, tide pooling as a kid and exploring and swimming, I was definitely a little water baby and I was fortunate enough to get scuba certified as a teenager with my dad and my brother and I started diving, first in Monterey Bay and then further afield and I was always interested in biology, I loved animals, I loved nature, and just followed that curiosity to Australia, which is where I studied the Great Barrier Reef for seven years, earned my PhD, with an incredible team of researchers.
That journey was one that was very inspiring but also very sobering because as you explore more, you start to see these large-scale patterns of degradation. Especially as temperatures rise, for instance, coral reefs are having a lot of trouble sustaining their populations through these mass bleaching events where temperatures get too high that the coral animal gets so stressed out that it ejects their algae symbionts that they need to live.
This has been just this large-scale pattern where the coral reefs turn white and die and it’s terrible because these whole ecosystems, these rainforests of the ocean rely on coral reefs to survive and a lot of people around the world, hundreds of millions rely on coral reefs for food and for livelihood. It’s been really difficult seeing this rapid degradation but also not seeing the translation of the science and this discovery into public understanding and action on land.
Part of what I want to do as a scientist, as an explorer, as leader of the nonprofit, The Hydrous, is translate scientific discovery in our ocean into public understanding and action. As a divemaster, as a kayak guide, I love taking people to the ocean. I love connecting people with underwater worlds because that’s where that passion and that curiosity starts, at least it did for me and I’ve seen it happen for so many others.
Of course the problem is, not everyone has that access, there’s so many limitations to getting on or under the water, whether it’s the cost or the distance or fear or physical ability and so one of the most powerful tools we’ve used is immersive virtual reality.
My team and I have been working for years to create experiences that can recreate what it’s like to be underwater and to make discoveries and to become a scientist yourself. Not only does this encourage science learning and sort of understanding ecosystems and biology and chemistry, it also connects people to beautiful and threatened ocean environments that need our attention and need protecting.
[0:06:01.4] PC: I still remember that sense of awe and wonder when diving for the very first time. I was a teenager as well, that was in the Philippines in Palawan and pretty much every single dive thereafter, that sense of awe for the nature of the immense ocean, its power and magic of healing, the sense of feeling free, and its immense possibilities. There’s things that are so much bigger than ourselves on this planet for us to learn, explore and protect and we absolutely count on the ocean to survive as humans, it is really the source of our planet’s biodiversity, food, and life, right?
A healthy ocean also helps regulate some of the climate change impact as a large carbon sink absorbing what is up to maybe a quarter of human emission of carbon dioxide but also, it’s heavily suffering. As you have talked about the great bleaching events. The coral reefs themselves are suffering greatly from increased abnormally high water temperatures and I’ve seen some of these firsthand as well and as you so eloquently describe is a moonscape, a quiet, sad scene when corals are dead, when they’re no longer loud and vibrant and beautiful and colorful, what that looks and feels like, it’s actually something really visceral but then again, it’s so difficult to get people to care about something they have never seen or experienced and then hence, virtual reality becomes such a heaven matched tool I guess to bring the visceral feeling of presence and experience to anybody with the access to smartphones or virtual reality devices and I absolutely love that. Yeah, I adore your work.
[0:07:53.2] EW: Thank you. What you described as when you're diving, you feel just in awe and literally submerged and immersed and as you say, it is a match made in heaven. Immersive media and oceans, it’s perfect because you can look all around you, you’re floating, you are very present with your breathing when you're underwater. I know there’s this thing called the mammalian dive reflex where your heart rate slows down when you're underwater or your spleen produces more blood cells and you’re just physiologically changed being underwater.
I would love to recreate that in an environment that is more accessible. And you also mentioned that your first time diving was very, just calm and nice and that’s so impressive because I remember my first time diving was panicky because there are all these different elements, all this different gear that’s keeping me alive underwater, I was just very nervous and I wasn’t comfortable yet. I didn’t have my buoyancy down yet, I was still using my arms to move when –
[0:08:59.4] PC: Ballooning.
[0:09:00.1] EW: Exactly. It takes a while to get comfortable because we’re definitely not built to be doing this, you know? We weren’t born with gills, unfortunately.
[0:09:09.1] PC: No.
[0:09:09.6] EW: It took me years to finally achieve that comfort level and I wonder if, with these virtual reality tools and this hardware, it will become more and more fluid. I know it was similar for me starting with virtual reality where it’s like, “What is on my head, what’s going on?” but especially as, I mean, look at the Flow, that is just so easy to use and it doesn’t – it’s not cumbersome, it feels natural, it feels like you're wearing a pair of sunglasses and we’re definitely moving in that direction just collectively as the technology gets so much more amazing.
[0:09:46.3] EW: I definitely cannot take all the credit of being immediately comfortable when learning to dive. I am a naturally optimistic person that has selective memory so I absolutely experienced the shock when first entering the water but what I took away from me was always that sense of awe and wonder, whether it’s the manta rays or the sea turtles that seem to be just absolutely flying in that immense space, or it’s 40 sharks that’s around me.
That adds a little bit of spice to it but that sense of being immersed as you say, submerged, I almost feel like a baby, like I’m carefully embraced and is such a delicate environment that where it’s also, that it’s possible to feel incredibly free and I was telling you about this story where I met the Paralympic gold medalist, Susie Rodgers, in the UK last weekend in Iceland, how she talked about the power of water giving her a sense of freedom of empowerment where all the cumbersome feelings that she has on land completely disappear the moment she enters the water.
I think that is universal. In human’s relationship with water, hence, the water birth for some mothers in labor, it’s absolutely incredible and I feel like there’s a lot of kind of intuitive understanding of why oceans are important and why we should protect them but it also requires a little bit of framework for us to more intellectually understand why it’s important, right? Should we start there Erika?
[0:11:13.8] EW: Absolutely, because I mean, intuitively, we all feel connected to water for so many reasons, it feels like it cleans us, it’s our source of birth.
[0:11:24.5] PC: That is right.
[0:11:25.5] EW: People love staring out at the ocean and there’s a reason you have calming ocean waves on so many apps that help you go to sleep, right? There’s that rhythm and sort of natural feeling and I mean, I highly recommend reading Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols who basically put all together the stories and the science around how water has healing properties and if we look at how much we rely on water and we rely on the ocean to survive, you hit on a lot of the ocean literacy principles and that we are connected to ocean environments, it shapes our planet, it controls our weather patterns and it keeps us alive.
If the ocean were an economy it would be the eighth largest economy in the world and unfortunately, it’s also very much out of sight, out of mind as well as underprotected and overexploited and so to me, there’s this natural progression of connecting with the ocean and seeing things firsthand and experiencing things to protecting it and to caring about it and also being curious. I mean, there’s so much we don’t know about our ocean environments. We need more explorers and we need more innovation to monitor and understand so that we can protect the ocean and therefore, protect ourselves.
[0:12:45.8] PC: It’s curiosity, it’s stewardship, I think two of the very important concepts that you're talking about, it defines what you're trying to do, and that ocean literacy framework that you cover pretty much, let’s just read them out for the listeners starting from number one, “The earth has one big ocean with many features.” I love what you talked about that the ocean seems to divide us in different continents but actually connects all of us as one humanity. I love this one in particular, it doesn’t divide us but it connects us.
[0:13:16.2] EW: Exactly. On our film, Immerse, that was said by the amazing Professor Terry Gosliner at the California Academy of Sciences and I also heard it from an incredible high school teacher in Palau who just said it so beautifully.
[0:13:30.9] PC: Right, and number two ocean literacy principle says that the ocean and life in the ocean shaped the features of earth, and the ocean three literacy principle number three says that the ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
[0:13:45.3] EW: Yeah, absolutely.
[0:13:46.5] PC: Which you touched upon a little bit.
[0:13:49.2] EW: Exactly. With the shaping the features of the earth depending on the sea level, depending on sort of the forces, because the ocean is such a powerful force, it’s similar to how glaciers shape landscape, the ocean shapes landscapes and shapes coastlines and is the reason, it’s sort of the science behind the scenery that we see. And the life in the ocean also shapes it because we have so many unique organisms like coral reefs that actually build geological structures and there’s just so much richness in the ocean that explains why we see what we see.
[0:14:25.0] PC: Yes, number four says, “The ocean made the earth habitable,” and this maybe all of us take for granted but our life literally depends on it. Without the ocean, human species wouldn’t survive on this planet and it also is the feature that makes this planet habitable to start with.
[0:14:41.8] EW: You might have heard the phrase “Goldilocks planet” when we talk about earth because it’s just right, it’s just what we need to have evolved all this life over all this time and have a habitable home, the earth is our home.
[0:14:58.9] PC: Number five says, “The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.” In fact, doesn’t it contain 80% of the planet’s biodiversity?
[0:15:07.1] EW: Yeah, absolutely and I mean, also, it’s a matter of space because terrestrially, we just have that two dimensions essentially, it’s three dimensional but in the ocean, because you have all the depth and you have so many pelagic organisms and things that can swim and float around, there’s just so much more cubic area for organisms to exist and it covers two-thirds of our planet, it’s miles and miles deep in some places and it’s just full of life and it’s also where life began on earth.
[0:15:40.4] PC: Absolutely. Number six says that the ocean and humans are immeasurably interconnected, that we talked a lot about how we naturally feel connected to the ocean. And then last but not least, “The ocean is largely unexplored.” I think this point is really important how we sometimes don’t think about that we know very little about our ocean still, just because of how massive and immense it is and how much there is to still understand and learn.
[0:16:05.1] EW: I know, we’re so limited in terms of how deep we can go as individuals, right? So we’re using all these submarines and submersibles and making discoveries is fascinating. Like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for instance, not far from here, is really leading the way in deep-sea exploration and there are new discoveries all the time and I always wonder what’s next; are we going to discover a new type of animal, are we going to discover some new compound or a whole new ecosystem that we’ve never heard of before?
It’s pretty amazing and that’s why we need to encourage another generation of explorers because there’s so much work to do.
[0:16:47.1] PC: Yeah, my husband is a passionate cave diver. For example, in just the Tulum area in Mexico, there are, I think 500 kilometers of underwater systems and there are all these divers, explorers that dedicate to the mission of mapping out all of these systems of hundreds of kilometers and that’s just one small water system that can take someone’s entire life exploring the unknown. Imagine what the ocean still has to offer to us, we know so little and we sure are limited.
[0:17:17.8] EW: Yeah, that’s so cool that he’s a cave diver. I would love to dive the Cenotes down there, the photographs I’ve seen are incredible.
[0:17:26.1] PC: Yeah, I mean, we can experience this in Cenotes through the caverns that are still relatively open water, you will still see a source of light, those are safer and easier. For those cave dives, you have to be really technically trained where you're going to pitch dark places and your life literally depends on a few flashlights.
[0:17:45.8] EW: It’s hardcore, I have so much respect for cave divers and for rebreather divers, it’s a lot, it’s a lot of technical training. There are definitely risks but those are the people pushing the boundaries of discovery. It’s not me but I have so much respect for that.
[0:18:05.6] PC: Yeah but going back to that concept of why education is important is to inspire the next generations of explorers to stretch, to keep venturing into the unknown. I think this is very much similar to the concept of going to space as well, it’s just our human nature to stretch, to keep going to push and explore what’s not known to us yet and that’s what keeps the civilization going.
That’s what keeps human life interesting and the longevity of it and just the fascinating concept of where this can all go. I think it all starts from that very core of curiosity that you’re striving to instill from the ocean to the next generation.
[0:18:45.6] EW: Totally, I’ve met a lot of marine biologists who initially wanted to be astronauts and they were aiming for the moon and got distracted by the ocean and there’s so much parallel there in terms of just discovering in a lot of ways. You might have heard this phrase that we know more about the moon than we do about our own ocean and there’s just so much to be done. That sense of exploration and pushing limits; that can be done on this planet, right? You don’t have to go into outer space to make incredible discoveries.
[0:19:16.4] PC: The weightlessness, right? That’s also something similar. But maybe coming back to your marine biologist and coral reef scientist side. Give us some basic education on the coral reefs, what we should understand about them and what it means, the global bleaching events, what that means, and what we can all individually do about this.
[0:19:37.6] EW: Absolutely. Coral reefs are in many places throughout the world. The tropical shallow-water coral reefs that I specialize in, usually exist between 30 degrees north latitude and 30 degrees south latitude, so in the tropical areas primarily focused near the equator and so, of course, you get some warm clear water and you also have different habitats where the water is relatively shallow.
For instance, my region of expertise is in northeastern Australia on the Great Barrier Reef, where the continental shelf there is relatively shallow enough so that the coral animals which are invertebrates, they’re soft-bodied so they’re kind of like anemones and they vary in size by species.
There’s these soft-bodied animals that have a special kind of algae called zozantheli that lives inside of them and the species that build the reef, basically with the energy from their zozantheli, turn sunlight into this energy to turn seawater into rock essentially, so it’s pretty magical.
The rock is calcium carbonate, it’s the reef structure that can be totally cavern-like, this incredible three-dimensional structure that supports 25% of all marine biodiversity on earth but only covers less than 1% of the seafloor.
Coral reefs are known as the rainforest of the ocean because they support fish and other invertebrates like crabs and sea slugs like nutrabrinks, which are one of my favorite things, although I up to larger fish, sea turtles, manta rays, sharks, dolphins, whales, a quarter of all of those marine species spend some of their life, some of their life cycle on coral reefs and then they also, because of the biodiversity they support, they support hundreds of millions of people around the world in food and livelihood, especially tourism.
The cause of coral bleaching is essentially ocean warming and so as the temperatures of our planet and our oceans steadily rise from the effects of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and the greenhouse effect, the ocean is warming and this is having profound effects on ecosystem throughout the ocean, including coral reefs because the rule of thumb is generally, if you reach one degree celsius above the mean, some are maximum temperatures, so the temperatures that coral reefs are used to experiencing, it can trigger a bleaching event.
The whole reef can turn white and die in just a matter of weeks if these temperatures are sustained and 30 years ago, this was happening sometimes but not every year. It’s starting to happen every year, so it’s becoming more frequent, more severe. We have the first ever global-scale mass bleaching event from 2015 to 2017 and we’d never seen anything like that before, it was absolutely devastating to these environments.
Not only do corals have climate change to worry about, they are also severely impacted by the effects of overfishing and marine pollution and habitat destruction. They’re unfortunately getting hit by so many different sides and so that’s why it’s important to, while we combat climate change, also look at marine protection.
So, really counter these effects of direct destruction from the more direct human impacts by creating marine protected areas that can seem to help coral reefs recover from these mass bleaching events but of course none of that can be successful in the long term without tackling the underlying problem of climate change and that’s why it is so important to maintain warming, the average global warming to 1.5 degrees because even what seems like a small difference of two degrees determines whether or not we’ll have coral reefs in the future at all.
[0:23:55.2] PC: Scientists say that should global warming surpass two degrees if we don’t actually achieve a 1.5 degrees target then over 99% losses of coral reefs worldwide are expected, basically they will no longer live –
[0:24:10.3] EW: Over 99%, that’s pretty sobering.
[0:24:12.8] PC: There goes the source of food, the source of income, there goes really the entire balance of our ecosystem, human and nature, the effects will be absolutely devastating not just to those people who live near the coastlines where coral reefs are directly impacted but the effects will absolutely be felt all around the globe. Going back to the first principle of how we are one ocean and the ocean connects all of this as one humanity, there is really no bifurcation of them and us, is there?
If coral reefs are gone then that impacts all of us and all of our future generations and that is extremely sobering as you said, and that just takes two degrees.
[0:24:55.0] EW: I know, ecosystem collapse leads to economic collapse, which really dictates the health of human societies around the world, not just the communities that rely on ocean ecosystems directly. Oceans also provide more than half the oxygen in our atmosphere, so folks in landlocked states for instance also are supported by the ocean.
I am so thankful and glad that you are going through the ocean literacy principles because that’s exactly the kind of messaging that I want to share with people. One of my colleagues, Dr. Geraldine Fauville, who I met at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is really leading the way in having that as a universal practice in terms of a metric so that we can measure ocean understanding and ocean literacy and we have so many other metrics when it comes to ocean health, whether it is fish biomass or temperature or PH or all of these other biotic and abiotic factors that affect the health of the ocean or you know, the economic stats I’ve been sharing as well.
I believe that, and I think Geraldine believes this too, is that the measurement of how we understand our ocean is going to improve all of those other numbers because unfortunately, the human population on earth is essentially the problem here when it comes to what is happening to our biosphere and the health of our ocean.
That also means we’re the solution, and I think the first step to that solution is understanding the problem, understanding ocean environments and how we’re connected and how we can be most impactful and I think that is really exciting and I am very optimistic when it comes to what we can do because people are working every day and there are ocean success stories every day when it comes to efforts to protect and inspire and learn about our oceans.
The community is incredible and the United Nations is also focusing on oceans this whole decade. We have the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development that just started this year and will go to 2030 and it’s been really heartening to see these communities all around the world come together to think about how we can protect the ocean and collect the science we need, create the science we need for the ocean we want.
Part of my work at The Hydrous is actually a partnership with the UN Decade of Ocean Science that we’re calling the Decade of Ocean Empathy because we want to bring that human connection to the science and encourage ocean literacy and ocean understanding and ocean connection and immersive virtual reality is a really exciting tool for that and that’s one of the things that is getting the most attention, that we’re seeing the most impact, and we also just have a lot of fun with.
[0:27:50.4] PC: This is also a good time to talk about your virtual reality filmmaking endeavors. First the 360 film of Immerse, a nine-minute dive that millions of people around the world have gone diving virtually with you and more recently, announced a project of Explore, where anybody can be a citizen and scientist in training to go through a learning module in an interactive way to learn how to take action.
Maybe you could tell or take us through both of these projects that you’ve been working on with the Hydrous team throughout the years and I noticed that since June 2020, so just about a little more than a year ago until now, almost one million people aged eight to 90 have taken part in these virtual rides with you so that’s great. We all need a tool of teleportation beyond our four walls during the lockdown in isolation.
[0:28:42.3] EW: Absolutely, it’s been an incredible tool, especially as we felt isolated from each other and natural spaces. It’s been incredible to have the scalable technology, like when I think about what I was doing as a divemaster, I could take a handful of people diving a day safely, but transitioning to these digital platforms and having this immersive content available to first hundreds and then thousands and now tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands and it’s incredible the kind of scaling we can do with this technology.
You know, I can’t take everyone diving. I can’t take everyone in the ocean but with my team, very talented team, we could bring the ocean to everybody and so that’s a really big driver in what we do and we’ve seen from just our interpersonal experiences and our intuition that it is having a big effect and we’re also seeing that in the research. I was really drawn to what just carrying around a phone and a cardboard viewer could do when I first was interested in this medium years ago.
Now, I’m so amazed by what we’re seeing as we advance with the technology we use and the methods we use. I was very much drawn to the science behind it so I am a visiting scholar now at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University led by Professor Jeremy Bailenson and working there with Dr. Geraldine Fauville and Dr. Anna Queiroz, we’ve been doing some incredible work.
It has been put on hold a little bit because of COVID. We didn’t have access to human subjects for a lot of good reasons but what we’ve been doing is we’ve created a whole new experience that’s interactive, so you mentioned Immerse and Explore and I just want to take a moment to say that instead of having sort of the terrestrial centric story arc, we have more of a dive profile when we tell stories. We have a moment of immersion and exploration and discovery and then when you ascend, it’s exactly –
[0:30:51.7] PC: You emerge.
[0:30:52.4] EW: Yeah, we emerge, and so maybe that’s what the next piece will be. Immerse for us was our first big piece and it used 360 degree underwater footage that we collected and pulled out into AA team using a special camera called The Virtual II that had 13 black magic cameras mounted in the underwater housing and all the cameras were about eye distance apart in pairs so that you can have that feeling of depth because what you see in your left eye is slightly different than what you see in your right eye so it looks three dimensional.
[0:31:26.7] PC: Photogrammetry.
[0:31:27.5] EW: Well, yeah. You have the multiple perspectives, it’s really cool and we would also do photogrammetry with The Hydrous, so we would use just traditional photographs to move around a coral specimen or coral colony and we could create a digital model from that and then 3D print it. This was originally collected, I believe, in Hawaii in 2014 and we really hope that that specimen, that colony is still alive and well but we have a perfect representation of it that we’ve also painted to show a partially bleached colony.
What Immerse did is it sort of took you on a journey, a little dive journey from the California Academy of Sciences, where I’d been a show diver, to the Republic of Palau that has fortunately escaped the effects of the mass bleaching event of 2015 to 2017 because I wanted to show what a healthy reef could look like and what a thriving ecosystem can look like and my team was amazing. We had Rick [Mascove 0:32:26.3] who is the underwater cameraman that could really handle it very well and is one of my favorite dive buddies.
We have Jason [Mclaghlan 0:32:33.4] who is an incredible producer and many others and so definitely now something I’ve done alone. I definitely needed a lot of help because I am a marine scientist and not a filmmaker by training and we had such incredible reception from that. It also led to getting to work more with National Geographic and their virtual reality initiatives, including the Virtual Reality Theater at their headquarters in Washington DC, where Wesley Della Volla, who is now a board member of The Hydrous and one of my favorite lab partners, created a theater where everyone had a headset all synchronized together so people could – 450 people at once could go on a dive while I live narrate it on stage. It was one of the best experiences of my life and the way that people reacted was just gorgeous.
They were interacting with each other, they were interacting with me in a much more meaningful way that made it seem like they were becoming the explorers themselves rather than just like passively watching something. It was really special and so we’ve really extended that into this experience that was funded by the National Science Foundation with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford and also supported very generously by HTC to create Explore, which sort of ups our game in terms of adding a level of interaction.
For instance, the learner can help a scientist or actually be the scientist to tag manta rays because the markings on manta ray bellies are unique for each individual, like their fingerprints or a QR code. In fact, we use QR codes a lot on our devices, so on this cardboard viewer you can use a QR code to go to our virtual dives and in this experience Explore, you can monitor ocean health from space, you can use quadrants to measure biodiversity and see changes over time.
It’s been a lot of fun to make and we’re excited to measure the effects through our research and also make the experience publically available.
[0:34:41.6] PC: What about that augmented reality experience that you’ve built in partnership with Adobe and Smithsonian?
[0:34:47.0] EW: That was such a fun project. We’ve been working with the Smithsonian for years, since pre-COVID and what was really exciting is The Hydrous at the time, we weren’t fully into VR yet and a lot of the work that we’re doing was focused on 3D modeling, so using the methods of photogrammetry and creating these digital models of corals in the wild that would be useful to scientists, to teachers, to artists all around the world. So they’ve been very compelling to a broad audience.
We were invited to go to the Smithsonian’s digitization conference, run by the digitization program office there who were digitizing their specimen collections. They were using photogrammetry and laser scanning to share all of these artifacts that they have in the huge Smithsonian network that few people get to see. Their back-of-house specimen collection is the majority of their collection. Less than 1% of all of the millions of things that the Smithsonian has is ever on physical display.
What they’re trying to do is digitize so they can share and when it comes to access, I remember, I love visiting the museum collections, especially biological specimens. There are these incredible shelves and drawers and you can turn the wheel so that the shelves move. It’s just absolutely incredible and so I’ve had the great privilege to visit a lot of museum collections including at the Smithsonian where I worked with the curators and the scientists there to select and curate a bunch of historically scientifically important specimens and ones that are just incredibly beautiful and interesting and have stories.
The digitization program office turned them into digital models, highly accurate representations, and together we made them available online, open access accompanied by different curriculum and stories and information and so that was a really wonderful project that we launched last year. It’s called Coral Collections and you can find it on the Smithsonian website.
And then just this past year, Adobe came along. They helped us bring these specimens to life using augmented reality and the incredible talent of their artistry and we had like Vladimir [inaudible 0:37:10.7], I am sure pronouncing that wrong, he’s an incredible 3D artist and he helped the reef turn back to its normal color, bring it to life. We added fish, we added turtles and it was all scientifically accurate for an Indo Pacific reef.
What’s so amazing about augmented reality is it can really marry the digital space with the physical space. You can bring a coral reef into your living room. And the whole experience was narrated by the amazing Danny Washington, who is one of my favorite people. I actually have a podcast with her called 21st Century Mermaids, about women in the ocean, and she’s an incredible science communicator and ocean advocate and she narrated the experience and it’s interactive and it’s fun and it’s just really a cool thing to share and I’m glad you were able to dive in.
[0:37:59.3] PC: Yeah, it was a super fun experience, I can’t wait to show my girls. Okay, my next question would be, so through these VR films, interactive experiences and AR experiences what have been some of your favorite stories of learners and people that go through them, the change you see in their eyes, their behaviors, what are some of the more impactful observations that you have made?
[0:38:24.7] EW: Oh wow, so many. For instance, I remember before 2020, I would go to so many events with my fleet of headsets and just take as many people diving as I could, whether it was a classroom, whether it was a nursing home, we had people of all ages and abilities and I’ve had people come out of the headset and have tears in their eyes and they tell me something really personal like, “ I’ve been sick so I haven’t been able to dive anymore but I really miss it,” or someone would tell me a story about how they’re really afraid of sharks and so they’ve never been diving but now they feel a little safer and might want to try it.
I’ve had people really reflecting on what they can do as an individual to protect these places. I hope that they feel a sense of sadness as well as hope because that’s the hope we need. Those conversations I have when people come out of VR are incredibly rich. I’ve also had, you know, really memorable things of course of what kids say. They say, “Oh my god, this is so cool,” and they’ll be talking throughout the whole experience and touching their friends and making their dive signals I taught them. So if they see a turtle, they do this. If they see a shark, they’ll do this.
[0:39:43.6] PC: Turtle, yes.
[0:39:44.4] EW: Yes, exactly and it’s just so interactive and so playful and so fun and it does have that energy as if I’m actually taking them there, which is pretty incredible.
[0:39:54.1] PC: Right, that’s really the magic of a storytelling immersive technology, bring it to everyday life and just making us care even a little more. On a global scale, it can make a real difference in protecting our ocean for all of us and our future generations. Last question, perhaps, I don’t know if we have gone a little too long but I don’t know, I also don’t want to be too selfish of occupying your time this morning.
What is your ocean story? The question you like to ask people, I’m going to ask back to you. What is your ocean story?
[0:40:27.5] EW: I do like to ask people that. I like to, especially after I take them diving because I’ve learned that people just naturally tell me their ocean stories so I’ve started just turning that into a prompt and making that space, I think that gives people a lot of permission to just reflect and share and I think that’s really powerful to connect with people and also to think about how important our ocean environments are.
My ocean story is one of just curiosity and enjoyment and being on the beach as a kid, body surfing in Santa Cruz with my family and just being entranced by what I would see in a tide pool, all of these little creatures moving around in their own little cities and their own little worlds, just observing those small things and feeling that connection and it wasn’t until years later when I started reading Steinbeck, his log from the sea of Cortez, or it might have been between pacific tides, but thinking about that connection between the tide pool and things that are just much bigger.
There is a really beautiful quote where we’re compelled to look to the tide pool, up to the stars, and back again. I wish I had memorized it verbatim but I just feel very connected to that concept that by understanding even a small corner of your world, you can understand a lot more and that gave me the curiosity and courage to learn more and go farther literally and figuratively in terms of the depth of my research, the community I’ve built around ocean science and the places I was able to go.
I’ve lived on boats and islands for fieldwork and it’s a tremendous privilege and an incredible joy and I just want to share it with everybody. I’m just very generous by nature, maybe a little too generous sometimes in terms of making sure I protect my personal boundaries but I just love giving that experience to other people and I love seeing people take things into their own hands and explore themselves without my help.
I think having that agency and having that self-efficacy is so valuable when it comes not only to ocean learning and conservation but just being a citizen and feeling connection and responsibility and really enjoying your life and understanding your surroundings, so I feel a lot of love and value in the work I get to do and I just am so glad to work with people like you who are really promoting the idea of connecting to each other with new technologies. I think it’s really beautiful.
[0:43:14.0] PC: I love that.
[0:43:15.1] EW: Yes, what’s your ocean story Pearly?
[0:43:17.1] PC: My personal ocean story is one of overcoming fear actually, so despite having served and dove around the world, I always had a fear for open water swimming, without my gears, without my board, just me, right? Open water swimming. Until I decided that it was time to get rid of that fear, so what I did was sign up for an ocean to ocean swim, 1.5 kilometer in Hong Kong. I was sure that I was going to just do this and overcome my fear but the moment, actually, once the gun went off, I ran really fast. I was the first one to jump into the water, only to find myself panicking, freaking out, panicking looking for the lifeguards for signs of their attention on me.
I remember that moment very vividly but then the staying true to my objective, I managed to collect myself and started swimming one stroke at a time and completing that 1.5 kilometers I believe in 32 minutes and after that of course, that fear was overcome and I started to enjoy open water swimming and qualified myself for triathlons and different new experiences thereafter.
My ocean story is one of clearly amazing awe, inspiration and wonder since the early days of diving and surfing, et cetera but a very visceral one is one of overcoming fear through this open water swimming race.
[0:44:40.9] EW: It’s a story of triumph, I love it. Thank you for sharing. It’s amazing.
[0:44:45.8] PC: Thank you. Thank you so much Erika for sharing your time with us today and sharing all of these incredible stories, your amazing work and dedication and bringing the ocean to everyone through science, translating science. It’s a public understanding through interactive education and public understanding through immersive storytelling as well and this was really so great.
I wish everyone can go to The Hydrous website to find your 360 film called Immerse, you can view it on YouTube as well as Vive for video as well as any VR headset devices you may have or you don’t even need a VR device for doing this one, millions of people have done. And also the newly announced project of Explore, where you go through the citizen scientist training with Erika. You can get that on Vive Focus 3 as well as all the different VR headsets out there.
I hope everyone will give it a try and get on board with Erika’s incredible mission and dedication. Yeah, Erika, thank you so much for joining us and bringing us some good vibes this morning and I hope that the conversation will continue. It only started here but it will surely continue. We’ll continue to share our ocean stories and hopefully hear from listeners as well on what their ocean stories are.
[0:46:05.6] EW: Yes, great idea and thank you so much for having me Pearly. It’s such a privilege and honor to talk to you and I just love everything you’re doing and thank you so much for sharing your ocean story with me and I just love your energy and you have the best vibe and keep it going.
[0:46:23.5] PC: Thank you.
[0:46:24.0] EW: Have a beautiful day.
[0:46:24.7] PC: Thank you. See you soon.
[0:46:29.2] PC: Thank you for listening. Please subscribe and share this podcast with a colleague or friend that you think could use some good vibes. Learn more at vive.com and follow HTC Vive on social media. See you next week.