Google Maps team member David DeLong maps Fort Myers beach Sunday. / KINFAY MOROTI/ THE NEWS-PRESS
(news-press.com) - Soon, people around the world will be able stroll Southwest Florida beaches virtually.
It's coming courtesy of a Google and Visit Florida photo-mapping project that documented Lee and Collier county shorelines last week.
The statewide campaign ends with a splash on Miami's famed South Beach early next month.
The end result will be 360-degree panoramic views of Florida beaches - some 825 miles of them - available to Web surfers 24/7.
Think Google Street View, in which users see places they are going before they arrive, minus the streets.
The photo crews - called trekkers - walk the beaches carrying 15 cameras embedded in a watermelon-size orb perched just above their heads.
To be sure, the trekkers drew a few quizzical glances from people along Lee and Collier County shorelines.
They included Jim and Marianne Coogan, relaxing outside the Beach Club at Mediterra, on Bonita Beach.
"That is so cool, amazing," said Marianne Coogan, after her husband described what he'd read about Google mapping technology.
"I've never seen the device other than in pictures," said Jim Coogan, adding he wondered just how this beach-mapping would be useful. "Somebody knows or they wouldn't be going to the trouble to do it," the retired CPA concluded.
Yes, Visit Florida - the state's tourism promotion agency - has a plan. Some highlights:
People able to access Florida's beach views just like they do streetscapes now on Google Street View, Google Earth, Google Maps, etc.
Visit Florida is planning its own interface with different layers that include tourism information. That application, as yet unnamed, should roll out in the spring.
State tourism promoters envision myriad users including beach vacation-shoppers, Hollywood film producers scouting locations and environmental groups.
The photography effort alone has drawn lots of attention.
Two, two-man Google-trained trekker teams have walked Florida's beaches carrying 40 pounds of camera gear. They've traversed beaches on many of the barrier islands as well as on the mainland.
Trekkers David DeLong and Sean McGeever, residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg, respectively, are covering Central and South Florida. They each do a daily shift, and over time they've gotten faster.
"We were doing 3 mph on foot. Now, it's more like 4," DeLong said. He spoke after dropping off McGeever near Little Hickory Beach Park, Bonita Springs. McGeever had just finished trekking Lovers Key State Park.
On a typical day, DeLong and McGeever each walk 7 to 8 miles.
They walk briskly enough there isn't much time for chats with bystanders. That's just as well, because the automated cameras catch everything.
"If you can see (the camera orb), it will pick you up. Of course, your face is blurred out, just like license plates are in Street View," DeLong said.
"It's been awesome," DeLong said of his trekking experience. "I'm an ultrarunner, so I like the physical part of it."
He's reveled in time alone on deserted shores. "I don't listen to music, just to the natural sounds."
And, although he describes himself as "more of a mountain person," DeLong admitted to having "new appreciation of the beaches: "Cayo Costa was beautiful; Boca Grande, awesome."
The project "will give people a great opportunity to see our beaches - all of the beaches of Florida," said Tamara Pigott, executive director for Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
Pigott thinks the views will whet people's appetite to visit: "As you know, there's nothing like the experience of being there."