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New Virtual Gallery Lets You Explore Underwater Marvels from Dry Land

The underwater wonders just off America's coasts can't be seen firsthand—to state the obvious—except by divers and snorkelers.

But a project launched this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gives you the next best thing, and you don't even have to wear a wetsuit.

The Virtual Dive Gallery features beautiful, 360-degree images of five of the country's national marine sanctuaries: American Samoa, the Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico, Gray's Reef near Georgia, and Thunder Bay in Lake Huron.

Using your smartphone, computer, or tablet, you can explore from every angle sites containing colorful fish, coral, shipwrecks, and other fascinating denizens of the deep. If you have virtual reality goggles, the experience is even more immersive.

("Christ of the Abyss" statue in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; photo by Sebastian Carlosena [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to inspiring awe, the gallery's images let viewers witness the devastating effects of climate change, pollution, and other environmental problems via before-and-after photos of, say, coral bleaching and the arrival of invasive species.  

A virtual dive or two might also inspire you to book a snorkeling or diving excursion in real life. 

Eventually, the NOAA hopes to have images available for all 13 U.S. marine sanctuaries.