Anyone could own a virtual piece of the Great Barrier Reef under an ambitious plan to revolutionise charity-based conservation.

Marine biologist Brett Kettle has designed an underwater camera that captures half a million photographs in a single day to identically re-map coral beds for the virtual world. 

“Not some fanciful artistic rendition of it, but an actual three-dimensional photo-realistic model,” Dr Kettle said.

“You can swim around it with an avatar in your virtual reality headset or explore it through your computer or mobile phone.”

He planned to produce and sell one-hectare reef sites as non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

NFTs are unique digital assets, typically a one-off artwork, video or photo and uses similar technology to cryptocurrency.

man stands holding camera with yellow wings
Dr Kettle will use the Vertigo3 underwater glider to capture the images.(Supplied: Brett Kettle)

Dr Kettle was working in collaboration with ReeFi-DAO, an emerging agency of conservationists, which would use the funds from NFT sales to run on-ground conservation efforts.

“Surveying, monitoring, fixing, replanting … all of those things needed to make the reef actually regenerate,” Dr Kettle said.

“We’re trying to divorce ourselves from the notion of something that’s simply artistic; we’re trying to develop something that better suits the ecosystem.

“Each individual patch of reef is unique. It’s not static. It’s dynamic.

Unlocking global ‘connection’

The director of the eResearch Centre at James Cook University, Professor Ian Atkinson, said digital ownership could become a powerful tool to help people engage in conservation.

“It gives the individual who buys into it a sense of connection and association,” Professor Atkinson said.

“If people can feel connected to natural assets they otherwise wouldn’t visit, it will enable them to better understand those environments and protect them.”

under water reef with baby shark
This image of the coral reef near Heron Island was captured using Dr Kettle’s underwater camera.(Supplied: Brett Kettle)

Professor Atkinson said it was not only coral reefs that could benefit.

He said there was also international interest in tracking forest ecosystems with the potential to create NFTs for individual trees.

“There is a need for people to believe what they’re seeing in the data they’re given,” he said.

“If these tools help people believe what they’re seeing and being shown, then they’ll make a very positive contribution.”

brown coral with small blue fish
Marine researchers hope the project will put a greater focus on reef conservation.(Supplied: Brett Kettle)

The bigger picture

Dr Kettle would like to one day digitally map the entire Great Barrier Reef, but in the meantime, he plans to launch a pilot program within weeks to survey the coral around Heron Island.

He hopes it will revolutionise traditional approaches to charity-based conservation.

“There is an amazing momentum developing to use blockchain traceability in all kinds of environmental projects,” he said.

“It’s one of the biggest problems in environmental work. How do you track the money spent and the outcomes it produces?

“I see it as an enormous impact to the conservation world.”

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