Environmental

Swim With Manatees, Mangroves in New Biscayne Bay VR Experience

Photographer and environmentalist Theo Quenee uses 3D camera equipment to film a virtual reality experience in Biscayne Bay.
Photographer and environmentalist Theo Quenee uses 3D camera equipment to film a virtual reality experience in Biscayne Bay. Photo courtesy of Theo Quenee
Theo Quenee sits at an outdoor patio in Coconut Grove, but he's in an underwater world.

Through virtual reality (VR) goggles, the 22-year-old, who sports a mangrove tattoo on his left thigh that peeks past the hem of his shorts, watches mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and schools of fish swim by in Virginia Key. He points out a starfish without leaving his seat.

The Biscayne Bay virtual reality experience is the latest project from Quenee's nonprofit group SENDIT4THESEA, an environmental organization 22-year-old Quenee co-founded with his high school friends from MAST Academy that organizes garbage cleanups in Miami’s waterways and offers environmental education presentations for schools and summer camps. The nonprofit borrows its name from Quenee's background in water sports, where athletes will encourage their friends who are scared or apprehensive to perform a trick or stunt with the charge, "Send it!"

"'Send it' is something like an encouragement. So if you're going to do something, do it with the intention of raising awareness for the ocean," Quenee says. "Send it for the sea."

A part-time photographer and filmmaker, Quenee recently got his hands on 3D filming equipment and saw an opportunity to marry his two occupations. He took the equipment to Virginia Key, where over the course of several weeks, he and his partners shot and edited underwater footage of key aquatic Miami ecosystems, such as mangrove roots and seagrass beds.
Anyone with a basic VR setup can set up SENDIT4THESEA’s 3D videos on their device by going to the group’s YouTube channel, and experience what it’s like to swim with the manatees and tropical fish of South Florida’s waterways without having to hold their breath.

The videos are only about 50 seconds of footage for now, but Quenee has grander designs for what the program could be. He envisions public schools throughout Miami using the VR videos to create lesson plans for students, providing a firsthand look at some of the plant and animal species they might otherwise only read about in a textbook.

"So obviously for younger kids, you could ask them if they see the sponges or the fish, and with high school students you can ask them biodiversity questions like what chains of ecosystems they can identify," Quenee explains.

Sewage runoff, climate change, and real estate development have threatened Biscayne Bay in recent years. Researchers and environmentalists have declared that the bay is in a state of emergency that could cost millions to rehabilitate, as foundational ecosystems like the seagrass beds that serve as both habitat and food source for local sea creatures die off in wide swaths.
 
Quenee hopes to shoot and edit more footage to show how the underwater environment has deteriorated owing to human influence.

"The plan is to document and to really show people what healthy seagrass looks like, and what dead seagrass looks like," Quenee explains. "And I can also edit it to show it side by side."

The program is still in its pilot stages, and Quenee is looking to partner with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to introduce the VR experience to classrooms and give schoolwide demonstrations, with the aim of inspiring the next generation to take action to save the local ecosystem.

Quenee is seeking more funding to film more underwater excursions and donate VR headsets to underprivileged schools.

"It would be cool if a tech company or a VR company wants to help us — I think that'd be a cool partnership with [Mayor Francis Suarez] trying to push tech in the city," Quenee posits.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos