Conservationists working with Google Inc. have unveiled a tool that lets people view protected marine areas with the click of a mouse — a bid to harness the Internet's top search engine to raise awareness of endangered ocean habitats.

The feature on Google Earth displays icons indicating sensitive areas of the world's oceans, from the waters off the Galapagos Islands to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

A click on them brings up photos and/or video of the sites and marine life there, as well as text explaining the sites, how they are managed and local maritime lore.

Google Earth project manager Steve Miller said the tool presented Tuesday, which Google Earth calls a layer, is the culmination of a yearlong project to let conservationists bring hard science to the general public in an entertaining way.

"We sat down and said 'let's open this up, let people around the world who might be passionate about their (marine protected area), who might be passionate about the water in their backyard, let them contribute to this,"' Miller said.

The new feature was presented at a congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a grouping of more than 1,000 government and nongovernment organizations and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries.

Google Earth is the platform for the new tool and helped develop it with the IUCN and the World Commission on Protected Areas.

Around 4,500 spots scattered around the world's oceans have been designated as marine protected areas, which means activities such as commercial or recreational fishing are restricted or outright banned to protect dwindling stocks of fish and other marine species.

Not all of them are featured on the Google tool, but its creators say it is nonetheless a groundbreaking way to get people all over the world interested in the environment.

At the same presentation, National Geographic unveiled another novelty: a live, continuous underwater video feed of a coral reef, off Belize in Central America, WildCam Belize Reef.

National Geographic has been attaching cameras to land animals like lions and sea creatures like turtles for years and sharing the footage, but this project is believed to be the first such experiment that provides a live, nonstop feed, said Torre Stockard of National Geographic's remote imaging department.

Laffoley said he was viewing it the other day during the testing phase, sipping his first cup of morning coffee as dawn broke in Belize, when suddenly a shark swam by on his computer screen.

"It is going to be addictive for a lot of people to have this kind of connectivity," he said.