One day late last year, Chris Simpson was looking at the waters off the coast of Western Australia on Google Earth when he made an unusual discovery.
Just west of the Kimberleys, a remote area in northern Western Australia, there was an extensive formation of fringing coral reefs – a sight rarely seen anywhere in the world.
“I feel like bloody Charles Darwin up here discovering these new reefs!” Dr Simpson told his boss.
It was a significant find for the coral reef specialist at West Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation. Most coral reefs occur as isolated reefs and atolls, such as the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland.
But fringing coral reefs are much rarer. As freshwater kills corals, such reefs can only occur if they are off the coast of an arid location, such as a desert, where no rivers flow out into the waters.
So it was only in locations such as the Red Sea, in south-west Madagascar and at Ningaloo Marine Park off Western Australia where extensive formations were found.
And while the Kimberleys were always a candidate for marine park status, their inaccessibility, turbid waters, massive tides and the presence of crocodiles have deterred would-be explorers from finding out the extent of the reefs.
So when Dr Simpson was exploring the Kimberleys through Google Earth, a practice he has incorporated into his job, he did not expect to spot such a major formation.
“I’m a great traveller and I am always looking at Google Earth and it’s fantastic at looking at all the reefs,” he says.
“Google Earth has high resolution photos over Western Australia and … it’s very, very useful as a scientific tool to look at the regional context of reefs – that’s what I have been doing in the Kimberleys.
“There are enough high resolution photos and they were taken at a time when the tide was low or the water was clear and there was no cloud to be able to see enough of the coral reefs to put together a good idea of just what’s going on out there.”
To the untrained eye, spotting coral reefs in the aerial and satellite imagery made available on the online program might be a hard task. But long before Google Earth launched in 2005, Dr Simpson was already learning to identify coral reefs through imagery from Landsat satellites and aerial photos.
Using imagery from different years – “the first one might be 1984, the second one might be 1996” – Dr Simpson and his department would piece together images of an area, like a jigsaw puzzle, to create a new map.
And Dr Simpson’s find could not have come at a better time. Last week, federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett announced an agreement with the West Australian Government to subject the entire Kimberley region to an environment assessment, as a major push for oil and gas developments in that region gathers pace.
Like Dr Simpson, other desktop explorers around the world have also tapped into Google Earth’s accessibility though some for more unusual reasons.
Last year, it was used in the unsuccessful search for missing US adventurer Steve Fossett, while top-secret Chinese submarines were spotted in north-eastern China by a nuclear weapons analyst. Four men accused of planning to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York were also said to have used Google Earth to obtain more detailed images of the airport.
The discovery reminds Dr Simpson of why he did his PhD all those years ago.
“We’re all just commenting that we feel like we are on the Beagle on the voyage of discovery.
“Incredible, just fantastic that there’s still parts of the world that’s like that.”