Since 2007, funky-looking Google Street View cars have been driving around the world giving users panoramic images from the street. Now, nearly 10 years later, a local nonprofit has been doing just that—but from the water.
Annapolis-based Chesapeake Conservancy created a 3,000-mile water trail as far south as the James River in Richmond, VA, all the way up to the tributaries off of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, like the Susquehanna and Patapsco rivers. With help from investors and new technology, the nonprofit is working to create virtual tours of those waterways to be accessed through its website.
"The problem with promoting these waterways is the lack of public access," says Chesapeake Conservatory CEO Joel Dunn, citing that about 98 percent of the shorelines are private. "By giving people this view from the water, they can plan better kayak trips or simply gain a greater appreciation of the rivers of the Chesapeake."
Each pontoon boat is equipped with six cameras mounted 10 feet above the water to capture high-resolution, 360-degree images every 50 feet. Those images are then stitched together to give users a digital map of the entire Chesapeake. Richmond-based Terrain360 built and operate the boats and, to date, have created five virtual tours.
Today, one of the pontoons was out on the Inner Harbor, capturing boat's-eye views of Ft. McHenry, Canton Waterfront Park, Fells Point, and Under Armour's campus. Dunn says the water tour of Baltimore will be up by early October.
"What's interesting is that most of our virtual maps so far have been forested or open areas," Dunn said. "But this urban landscape makes the trail unique. I hope seeing the city this way will remind residents what a phenomenal asset the harbor is."
The organization plans to post virtual tours of three or four rivers a year—completing what they have mapped out as the entire Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail—until the project wraps in 2018.
"It's one thing to tell people about these beautiful waterways, but it's an entirely different thing to show them," Dunn said. "There's no real substitute for being out on a boat like this and experiencing it, but these virtual maps are the next best thing."