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Chasing Coral

Fluorescent corals may be attractive, but they are a very negative indicator of marine health, as the Chasing Coral team discovered Fluorescent corals may be attractive, but they are a very negative indicator of marine health, as the Chasing Coral team discovered Netflix
09 Aug
A new Netflix documentary investigates the dire state of the world’s coral reefs, amid an historic mass-bleaching event

‘My understanding was, this was an animal, and this was an animal,’ says Richard Vevers, indicating different shapes on the computer screen in front of him. ‘Are they the same animal?’

‘They are,’ replies Dr Ruth Gates.

‘But,’ continues Vevers, hesitantly, ‘I know they’re identical animals, but are they the same?’

‘They are,’ repeats Gates.

‘So they, they are one animal?’

‘It’s one animal.’

‘Ok, but they’re not considered... I thought a polyp was an animal, not a coral was an animal with lots of polyps. Does that make sense?’

‘A coral is an animal with lots of polyps,’ confirms Gates.

‘But a polyp isn’t an animal?’

Gates thinks. ‘Well, it’s part of the animal.’

‘Right. Because... no one’s ever explained what a coral is.’

This exchange – between Vevers, underwater photographer and Executive Director of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, and Gates, Director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawaii – is likely to have resonated with many viewers of new documentary Chasing Coral, directed by Jeff Orlowski (who previous brought us the acclaimed Chasing Ice).

Coral reefs are known to be heavily threatened globally by climate change – possibly to the point of extinction – yet the specifics can be somewhat hazy. What actually is coral? Why is it so important? And why is it on the front line of the climate crisis?

Director Jeff OrlowskiDirector Jeff Orlowski filming on the Great Barrier Reef (Image: Richard Vevers/Chasing Coral)

As well as answering these questions, the film sets out to visually illustrate exactly what the world stands to lose through letting our coral reefs cease to exist. ‘There’s this big heat wave that’s travelling around the planet,’ explains Vevers, staring gloomily at satellite maps depicting record high ocean temperatures around the world, ‘and it’s killing corals wherever it’s going. This is a small window of opportunity that we’ve got right now, to be able to capture this bleaching event and communicate it in a massive way.’

Utilising cutting-edge technology created by underwater technology company View Into The Blue, Vevers and his team travel around the world in a desperate race-against-time to capture footage of the dramatic bleaching of coral reefs, as the world’s third mass-bleaching event was getting underway back in 2015. Consequently, what we get is a fly-on-the-wall journey as these passionate individuals undertake what has never previously been done; creating a powerful timelapse of the death of a coral reef. ‘Is the colour change fairly uniform?’ asks Vevers at one point, in reference to the way corals turn a bright white. ‘Don’t know,’ replies Gates, to Vevers’ bemusement. ‘It’s never been shot in the wild before! That’s what’s so thrilling to me about what’s going on here, is that it’s going to be the first time that we’ll actually be able to answer that question.’

American SamoaCoral bleaching in American-Samoa (Image: XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency/Richard Vevers)

So often, efforts to make films about complicated impacts of climate change, such as coral bleaching, can get easily lost in the mire, tangled up in vague arguments about recycling, politics and/or wind farms. Chasing Coral skilfully side-steps these talking points. Instead – one brief recap of what the greenhouse effect is aside – we get a concentrated focus on the role that the ocean plays in regulating the Earth’s temperature and atmospheric composition, and the impact that this is having on our coral reefs, the hotspots of biodiversity in the oceans. We need to understand the severity of this problem, the film argues, because it is not getting remotely sufficient attention.

Much of the credit for how this complex issue is made clear and digestible must go to characters such as Richard Vevers, also founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, and Zack Rago, a young marine technician who gradually moves towards centre stage over the course of the film. Vevers excels in his role as our guide through the complex submarine world, assuming the role of the simpleton asking the basic questions on behalf of us, the lay audience, to the various experts who have been gathered together for this highly ambitious project.

Rago is the raw emotion in the story, the coral fanatic desperate to do whatever he can – as fast as he can – to save his beloved Montipora, Porites compressa, Lutea, and other essential coral species. There is a strong bond between him and veteran science communicator Dr John ‘Charlie’ Veron, Rago’s childhood hero, whom he gets to interview during their stay in Australia. ‘I’m glad I’m not your age,’ says Veron, looking intently at Rago. ‘I’m ready to check out when the Great Barrier Reef gets trashed, because it’s been the most loved thing in the physical world of my life.’ As he points out, when he started studying the 2,300km-long Great Barrier Reef, no one imagined that anything could ever threaten something which existed on such an enormous scale.

While not everyone will feel the same immediate compassion for coral as many of the film’s key characters – particularly Rago – and perhaps will therefore not instinctively find themselves drawn to tears as easily, there is no doubt that Chasing Coral manages to underline poignantly what a dramatic and tragic event coral bleaching really is. Orlowski’s ability to hit the right emotional buttons is perhaps the key accomplishment of what, on the surface, sounds like quite a convoluted and disengaging subject matter. Instead, it’s a surprisingly hard-hitting piece of science communication, one destined to produce a new wave of coral fanatics keen to do whatever they can before it’s finally too late.

Chasing Coral is available to view now on Netflix. For more information visit chasingcoral.com

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