Creating 3D Models of Coral Reefs with Autodesk Reality Capture Tools

For the first time ever, a team of marine scientists is utilizing photogrammetry to capture entire segments of coral reefs and turn them into highly detailed 3D models, allowing accurate measurements and monitoring of these valuable biological organisms over time.

The team, stationed on the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai, Hawaii, has been able to accomplish this feat using little more than an underwater digital camera and Autodesk ReCap reality capture technology.


The workflow represents a significant improvement upon previous methods of measuring coral surface area, which is the living portion of the coral. Since corals are three-dimensional creatures, previous efforts to calculate surface area were time consuming, labor intensive, and focused only on their two-dimensional area.

“Autodesk ReCap gives us a non-invasive, highly accurate and visual method of measuring coral reef growth over time,” said Sly Lee, a marine scientist and founder of the non-profit organization The Hydrous. “The high-resolution 3D models make it easy for us to view and monitor growth, physical impacts, disease, and bleaching. This is going to revolutionize coral reef science and education.”

This innovative workflow has caught the attention of many coral reef scientists around the world:

“This technology will allow us to better understand coral reef diversity and health at an unprecedented scale, allowing us to help preserve them before they are gone.”

-Alan Friedlander, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, Pristine Seas, National Geographic Society

“The (coral) models are incredible. I see many areas where such high resolution models would be useful. We need a non-destructive way to accurately measure surface area and volume of corals. I think this would be incredible as a visualization and would definitely get people talking about how fabulous coals are.” -Ruth D. Gates, Ph.D., Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

A Vital Part of the Earth’s Ecosystem and Economy

Coral reefs are—to use a scientific term—kind of a big deal.

They cover less than 0.1% of the ocean floor, yet provide a home for 25% of all marine species, making them some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. In addition to being storehouses of immense biological wealth, reefs provide economic and environmental services worth up to $375 billion each year by supporting local fishing, tourist, and diving industries.

Coral reefs also protect coastlines from strong currents and waves by slowing down the water before it gets to the shore. Barrier reefs, as their name implies, provide a barrier between the ocean and the shore.

Despite being intrinsically beautiful and economically invaluable, coral reefs around the world are facing multiple stressors such as bleaching, increased sea surface temperatures, over fishing, and ocean acidification, just to name a few. Many scientists now believe that it is very possible that we could lose all of our hard corals within 100 years. The cycle of corals coming and going is a natural one, and has been documented in the past millennia, but what is alarming is the rate of change our climate and oceans are experiencing. This new technology will give scientists and educators a powerful tool to aid in coral reef monitoring and education, providing data, visualizations and experiences never before possible until now.

Want to print out your own corals?  Download these 3D print-ready models and create your own coral reef display!

View 3D models of the corals from Guam, Saipan, Palau and Kalaupapa here, and see video footage of Lee and his colleagues in action here