When advertising professional and scuba diving enthusiast Richard Vevers realised his favorite marine creature (the delicate sea dragon) was vanishing into the blue, he was compelled to raise awareness of the consequences human activities have upon the marine environment. As he so astutely observed, the chief challenge facing marine conservation is actually very simple: “The ocean has a marketing problem.”
So he contacted Jeff Orlowski (of “Chasing Ice” fame, the 2012 documentary which documented the stark retreat of many of the world’s glaciers) with a suggestion: film time-lapse footage of the rapid bleaching and eventual death of coral reefs, in order to bring the consequences of global climate change to the public forefront.
This vision was flawlessly executed in a powerhouse documentary with a near-perfect balance of science, humor, rich visual imagery, and one very urgent message.
Altogether the gallant cast of “Chasing Coral” is a diverse crew of professionals from many fields, including an advertiser turned underwater photographer, a few marine biologists, underwater filming enthusiasts, coral enthusiasts, and some brilliant engineers.
Every good story needs engaging characters and the “Chasing Coral” team could not have found a better one than Zack Rago. A proud coral nerd from ocean-sparse Colorado whose hobbies include keeping saltwater tanks occupied by nothing but coral (honestly, who does that?), Rago is young, passionate, and infinitely endearing. Watching him unabashedly listing off the Latin names of the corals in his collection does any scientist’s heart good.
Also pleasing to the researchers in the room will be the emphasis “Chasing Coral” places on educating its viewers. It is often tempting for nature documentaries intended for a general audience to briefly clarify that coral is in fact a living animal, but then skim over the rest of the organism’s biology entirely to move on to the conservation or ecological message. But “Chasing Coral,” is unafraid to delve deeper and elaborates on the science behind bleaching and the fascinating nature of coral’s intrinsic symbiosis with its photosynthetic zooxanthellae. Under the premise of marine biologist Dr Ruth Gates explaining coral biology to Vevers, the science lesson uses a cheerful, conversational style of teaching and beautiful 3-D images as illustration.
“Chasing Coral” also goes into the ecology of coral reefs as well as the ocean-specific effects of global climate change, and offers its audience a multitude of reasons why they should care about the future of coral reefs beyond the obvious aesthetic appeal. All of the science the documentary offered was effectively delivered—it educated without being condescending, warned without lecturing.
These science lessons enrich the storyline of the “Chasing Coral” team’s journey to obtain time-lapse footage of coral reefs bleaching and dying. As in any proper quest, they experience considerable struggles and setback in their attempts, but ultimately the team is there in the northern Great Barrier Reef to bear witness to a world-first phenomenon: instead of bleaching, some corals were actually fluorescing. Without anthropomorphising too deeply, the surreal sight of these corals becoming bizarrely bright purple and green really did seem—as the team remarked—like a cry for help.
Even more vivid than the fluorescing reef was the juxtaposition between a floating restaurant of happy, oblivious partygoers and the slow, heartbreaking death of an entire world happening right below their feet. The harsh contrast made everyone in the audience slightly uncomfortable; a tad self-aware of our own happy and oblivious daily lives.
Yet watching the likeable, eager coral nerd Zack Rago getting misty-eyed as he helplessly watches his favorite animals slowly dying day after day certainly tugged at the audience’s heartstrings more than a solemnly narrated voiceover ever could have. It never feels as though “Chasing Coral” is becoming a sentimental tearjerker, however; the sense that reality is being presented without exaggeration is never lost.
One particularly bittersweet moment came when Rago is finally able to meet Dr Charlie Veron, legendary coral researcher and Rago’s personal hero. As Rago meets his idol for the first time, the happy occasion is overshadowed by the sober reflection of all that was lost between Veron’s time and Rago’s. When Veron was young, everyone assumed the beauty of coral reefs would last forever; now Rago, as a young man, may very well see the extinction of coral within his lifetime. The space between them could not be more vast.
And so the filmmakers expertly built up the intellectual and emotional intensity to the documentary’s dramatic finale: the presentation of the team’s footage at a worldwide symposium of coral scientists.
Even the most battle-scarred scientists who think they understand the tragedy of climate change will be moved; I guarantee it. The rapid and drastic succession of death on the reef was brutal. I have degrees in marine biology and conservation myself, and watching this documentary was the first time in my life I’ve ever teared up over coral. After the first five before-and-after shots of living coral turned to algae-coated skeletons, I didn’t want to see any more. I can’t image the strength and determination of the diving team who watched the deterioration for months.
“Chasing Coral” takes the audience on quite the journey and passes through a very low point where the future appears particularly bleak. The film illustrates how the ocean’s temperature rise is projected to soon exceed the limits of what coral can survive, even in the best case scenario of worldwide decrease in carbon emissions, and explains that corals may very well be extinct in only thirty years.
Most shocking was the revelation that no less than 22% of the Great Barrier Reef died in the year 2016. Yet before the audience was even given time to let that sobering thought sink in, “Chasing Coral” moved on to showcase messages coming in from around the world of the damage done by the 2016 mass coral bleaching event. From tropical countries and cities encircling the entire globe, scientists and scuba divers intoned solemn statistics on the extent of the bleaching while snapshots of bone-white coral drove the point home. It was for all the world like watching an apocalyptic war movie, in which each city calls in to report their losses—“We’ve lost 50% of the population already, and many more are dying. Casualties are expected to rise. Please help us.”
But thankfully, the story does not end with the collapse of the ocean. The moviemakers know that you cannot get anyone fired up for your cause if you end with all doom and gloom, so they finish with hope: hope that humanity is clever enough, determined enough, creative enough, and more than capable to fix this crisis. But we need to come together, and we need to do it now. Stopping the use of fossil fuels and switching to renewable energy sources is the only way to end this.
Rago and his team are already taking a virtual-reality “Chasing Coral” experience to classrooms across the US, but this documentary should truly be viewed across the entire world. Although its theme is one of sober warning, the audience leaves the theatre both shocked by the extent of the problem and energised to be a part of the solution. “Chasing Coral” will be released on Netflix and is a definite must-see for all people who rely on healthy oceans—which, by the way, is all of us.
My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★