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Visualizing Marine Biology

A Dive Into Marine Biology


Fish are fun. So is the ocean. So let's take a dive into what is down there.

Marine biology is the study of marine life. It classifies all marine life on their location in the environment.

There are three main groups of marine life. They are:

- Plankton: These are creatures that float in the water.

- Nekton: These are creatures that swim through the water.

- Benthos: These are creatures that live on the ocean floor.

There are also four important groups of marine mammals to remember.

- Cetaceans: This group includes whales, dolphins, and other porpoises.

- Pinnipeds: This group includes seals, sea lions, and walruses.

- Sirenians: This group includes manatees, and dugongs.

- Fissipeds: This group includes polar bears and sea otters to name a few.

 From these creatures, Marine biologists have a lot to study. Most marine biologists chose a category to study when heading into their field. This lets them specialize and choose which organisms to explore. Their choices can range anywhere from phycology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, marine mammalogy, fishery biology, marine biotechnology, marine microbiology, or marine ecology. Often their workplaces will vary. They might work in research, academia, or private sectors of businesses. They will work in marshes, wetlands, and ocean environments. They use equipment such as boats, scuba gear, nets, traps, sonar, subs, robotics, and other lab and computer equipment.

Often marine biologists will be responsible for these activities:

  • Study marine life in natural or controlled environments

  • Collect data and specimens

  • Study characteristics of species

  • Assess human impact

  • Monitor and manage populations

  • Report findings

  • Teach

A huge part of being a marine biologist is understanding Microbiology. Microbiology plays a huge part in the ecosystem, and allows scientists to study smaller forms of life. Such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and algae. Bacteria are hugely important to the biosphere of the oceans as they comprise 98% of the ocean's biomass.

Here are some other important categories marine biology is used in, or is important to.

Fisheries and Aquaculture: There are many areas of this field of study. But it's main goal is to protect biodiversity and create sustainable seafood sources. It studies the population dynamics of fisheries, overfishing, habitat destruction, toxin levels in water, and the overall habitat of fish.

Environmental Marine Biology: This field studies the overall health of the ocean. It lets scientists ensure overall water quality, and watch and maintain a healthy environment. They also look at coastal health of ecosystems and coastal development of beaches. They also watch for  pollutants and sediment falling off into the oceans. As well as other ocean threats.

Deep-Sea Ecology: This field of marine biology wouldn't be possible without technological advancements in recent years. With deep-sea cameras and submarines now in existence, it is truly possible to watch everything on the ocean floor. Deep sea scientists look for new species of life, and study how animals live at these crushing depths within the ocean. They also watch for hydrothermal vents, and how we could possibly use these for energy sources in the future.

Marine Mammalogy: This field of study is all about whales and other marine mammals. All of their behaviours, long term heath, habitats, and populations are studied. This is one of the more popular studies for people in the field of marine biology. It's an extremely competitive field, but is also one of the more funded areas of marine biology.

Marine Ethology: This is the overall study of marine animal behavior. It allows us to protect endangered species, and understand which habitats are threatened by extinction. 

Ichthyology: This is the study of fish in both fresh and saltwater. There are currently over 25,000 species of fish. This field often overlaps with aquaculture and fisheries.

Visualizing Microbial Seascapes

As we've previously mentioned, microbiomes are incredibly important to the oceans. So visualizing them, and viewing them in their current state is crucial to understanding the oceans. Here are some ways scientists get that done. 

These are some of the main methods scientists use to map marine life:

Scientific Illustration: These can be drawings or pictures that contain both technical and aesthetic accuracy to display both ocean and Earth processes.

Scientific Visualization: These can be simulations of ocean data that combines both illustration technical principles into interactive outcomes. These can be great for explaining research findings to biologists, or to the general public.

3D Modeling and Animations: These are often used in museums or aquariums to explain how something in the ecosystem should operate to the general public. They use the same concepts as scientific visualization, but are more for the watcher to enjoy.

GeoInformatics and GIS Services: These are used to communicate geo-sciences, and geographical data to biologists, scientists, and the general public. They can range from 3D scans of the ocean floor to mapping sediment build up in lower parts of the oceans.

One of the main and urgent topics biologists are attempting to visualize, understand and protect better is the destruction of coral and the tiny forms of life around it and within it. Coral is made up of tiny colonies of creatures called polyps. These creatures are incredibly delicate and can be destroyed by the slightest touch. Because of global warming, coral is disappearing at an alarming rate. So several scientific models and tools have been developed to show this destruction.

The fastest destruction of these coral reef environments has been along the equator, and other tropical destination places. Such as Bahamas and other places in the Caribbean. There are various simulators out there online, and NASA has even developed some to teach children the dangers of water pollution and the effect of rising sea levels.

The Computer Graphic and Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Bremen has also made several simulation videos about this subject matter as well. (You can find them HERE.) Their Coral Reef and Death simulation probably explains this phenomena the best. Their viral coral reef project is centered around mapping coral in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They also partner up with the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research as well. Their simulations are so accurate that they can adjust parameters for water temperature, time of day, and real time visualization.

Tools such as Micro-videos have also been used to document how invasive parasites and toxic red tide phytoplankton affect our marine life. These creatures can be incredibly harmful to coral reefs and other forms of life in the oceans. The Australian Institute for Marine Science has done several of these videos to show how oceans are being affects by these species. They have also done it to show how mud and marine snow affects coral growth. 

Probably the most important studies and visualization of marine life data has come out of The Census of Marine Life project. (Check them out Here.) This was a 10 year study of the oceans. It was run by 80+ nations, had over 2700 scientists involved and ran over 540 expeditions. They were able to discover over 6000 new species, create over 2600 scientific papers, create countless databases, and give countless contributions to science. To this day, it is the most important study of marine life ever. They were also able to create The Ocean Biogeographic Information System, the world’s largest online collection of geo-referenced data of the oceans.

They were also able to create a huge amount of maps and visualizations of their research areas. However, as of 2020 it has been offline and is no longer available on their site. :(

As you can see, visualization is also a tool to help scientists compare probable research output with field data. This can be incredibly helpful for industries based around water quality, and natural conservation. There have also been a few simulations built to better understand how the Great Lakes filter into each other. Such as simulations that measure the turbidity plumes and outputs of water in Lake Michigan. Or to evaluate how water is exchanged between Hamilton (ON) harbour and Lake Ontario Canada.

One other cool thing about marine visualizations is that some of them have made it into SIGGRAPH. The California Academy of Sciences has made several coral reef animations that have used Houdini. Such as this visualization project HERE. Several of their videos describe how coral absorbs energy, whether they are carnivorous or predators, and how the tiny polyps on them operate. They also have a really awesome science video vault on how other systems in the universe operate. Their Houdini researchers are amazing, and I highly recommend checking out their site.

Virtual Reality and Marine Biology

So where does virtual reality fit into all this?

Universities have started to use VR as a teaching tool, so students can get a better idea of how all life interacts in the oceans. Researchers at Stanford and the University of Oregon have created several VR presentations for people to view. One they call the Stanford Acidification Experience, which they presented to 300 highschool and college students. This simulation allowed students to watch and walk through a coral reef being destroyed by acid waters and weeds.

One huge project called Oceans 360 is also aimed at educating people about the oceans. (You can check them out HERE.) They provide educators with the option of using VR headset to teach their students why marine systems are important to protect. Ocean 360 uses camera captures, and videos of the ocean floor to allow viewers to walk around in the oceans. They have produced over 12 virtual reality videos and they can be used on the Oculus VR. Some of their videos are about the Great White Sharks in Guadalupe Island in Mexico and Manatees in Florida.


So...if you are a Houdini weirdo like me, you'll know that looking for good VFX reference is challenging. Sometimes even finding a scientifically accurate site is even harder. Well look no further if you need marine life reference. The EVNautilus Youtube channel is here to save the day.

This channel documents the findings of The Ocean Exploration trust. They have live streams every-time they are on the water, and have a backup of everything they find. (You can find their channel HERE.)

The Ocean Exploration Trust was founded in 2008 by Dr Robert Ballard. He was also known for discovering the wreck of the Titanic. It aims to find new discoveries in the fields of geology, biology, marine history, physics, and chemistry. They explore the deep sea, whale skeletons, and other little invertebrates on the ocean surface.


Graphics and Visualization:

Census of Marine Life Mapping & Visualization:

Visualization in Marine Science:

 A New Map of Ocean Life :


Marine Biology and Oceanography:

Visualizing Microbial Seascapes - Spring:

Biological Sciences Research Guide:


Processing and Visualization of Oceanographic Data in 2.5 and 3D:

New tool to visualize marine life unveiled by NOAA Administrator.:

OnSet: Visualizing Boolean Set-Typed Data using Direct Manipulation:

Ocean Events:

A GIS-based tool for storage, selection and visualization of time series 4D marine datasets:

Visualizing the underwater behavior of humpback whales:

Nereus Ocean Visualization:

Visualizing and Quantifying Oceanic Motion:

Virtual Reality and Oceanography: Overview, Applications, and Perspective:


Virtual Reality Helps Students Understand The Reality Of Ocean Acidification:

Get your feet wet as a marine biologist in a VR coral reef:

Oceans 360 brings marine life close to home through virtual reality:

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