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SAN FRANCISCO – Few have explored the remote volcanic islands of the Galapagos archipelago, an otherworldly landscape inhabited by the world's largest tortoises and other fantastical creatures that inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Soon it will take only the click of a mouse or finger swipe on a tablet to explore some of the Galapagos Islands' most remote areas, surrounding waters and unique creatures.
Mountain View, Calif.,-based Google sent hikers to the Galapagos with Street View gear called "trekkers," 42-pound computer backpacks with large, soccer ball-like cameras mounted on a tower.
Each orb has 15 cameras inside it that have captured panoramic views of some of the most inaccessible places on the Galapagos. Crews from The Catlin Seaview Survey worked with Google to capture 360-degree views of selected underwater areas too.
"We spent 10 days there hiking over trails ... and even down the crater of an active volcano," Raleigh Seamster, the project's leader for Google Maps said. "And these are islands, so half of the life there is under the water surface. So (we brought) Street View underwater to swim with sea lions, sharks and other marine animals."
Google is processing the footage and is trying to stitch it together. It hopes to post it to Street View later this year.
The cameras captured the nesting sites of blue-footed boobies, the red-throated "magnificent frigatebirds," swimming hammerhead sharks and, of course, the island's giant tortoises.
Scientists working with Google are exploring the footage for other species and hope to update the pictures regularly throughout the years as they study the effects of invasive species, tourism and climate change on the island's ecosystems.
"We hope that children in classrooms around the world will be trying to discover what they can see in the images, even tiny creatures like insects," said Daniel Orellana, a scientist with the Charles Darwin Foundation.
"We can use this as an education experience for children, and there is a huge opportunity for rare discoveries."
Orellana and others supervised the Google trekkers and helped guide them to remote areas either off-limits to tourists or rarely visited because they are hard to reach.
They also captured images of the areas frequented by tourists so they can keep track of how this access is affecting the environment.
Since launching Street View in 2007, Google has expanded from urban neighborhoods accessed easily by its mapping cars to more hard-to-access sites like the ocean floor, the Amazon rain forest and the Arctic.
"This whole project was part of Google's ongoing effort to build the most comprehensive and accurate map of the world," Seamster said.