'Chasing Coral' Goes Underwater to Explore Coral Reef Destruction

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©. Netflix -- Coral 'fluoresces' in New Caledonia before bleaching, creating a chemical sunscreen to protect themselves from the heat.

This 'thriller' documentary explains why coral cannot survive as ocean temperatures rise, and why this is so devastating for humans.

Chasing Coral is a new documentary film that premiered on Netflix on July 14th. It chronicles the widespread bleaching that’s occurring on coral reefs around the world – an awful phenomenon where brilliantly colored, lively corals turn snowy white within a matter of weeks, due to a 2-degree increase in water temperature.

The film starts with Richard Vevers, a former British advertiser and avid diver, who is frustrated by people’s lack of interest in the ocean, an alien world that exists right here under our noses, and yet is often ignored. He embarks on an ambitious project to map the world’s oceans using a camera and uploading to the Internet, à la Google Earth, but in the process, learns more about the bleaching events, which are killing huge numbers of corals every year. He decides to take another approach, contacting documentary film director Jeff Orlowski who made Chasing Ice (2012). The message about coral’s impending destruction seemed a natural extension of that film.

Together, the team set out with a mission to capture bleaching events on film. It happens quickly, and the key was to figure out where and when increased temperatures would be moving into a particular area. Using specially made, stationary time-lapse cameras, the divers traveled from the Caribbean to Polynesia and the Great Barrier Reef before finally getting the footage they wanted. It wasn’t easy. Weather patterns are unpredictable, the technology is finicky and highly complex, and, when the divers ended up having to do the time-lapse photography manually, while diving every day, it became an exhausting and emotional experience.

bleached coral

© XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency (Richard Vevers) -- Coral bleaching in American Samoa, pictures taken 6 months apart

What I really liked about Chasing Coral is its explanations about what coral is and how it functions. It’s heavy on the science, but in a good way. Dr. Ruth Gates, a coral reef biologist based in Hawaii, explains that coral is more than just an unusual form of plant life; it’s an actual animal, with a skeleton covered with pulsating, dancing polyps on the surface and plant cells beneath that photosynthesize during the day and become active during the night. Coral is home to countless fish and other marine species, and reefs are considered the nurseries of the sea, since that’s where 25 percent of all marine life has its beginning.

The fate of coral is deeply intertwined with human wellbeing. Corals are more than just a species; to lose it would mean losing an entire ecosystem, similar to losing forests and trees. As a home to fish, they’re an important source of protein for millions of people. As a physical structure, they function as a breakwater during violent storms – far more resilient than anything man-made.

And yet, they’re dying at an unprecedented rate. The Great Barrier Reef lost 29 percent of its coral in 2016, with the northern portion losing an average of 67 percent. As one scientist points out in the film, that’s like losing most of the trees between Washington, D.C. and Maine.

There are no climate change deniers in this film. Global warming is upheld unanimously as the reason for coral bleaching. When fossil fuels are burned and CO2 gets trapped in the atmosphere, it is then absorbed by the ocean: 93 percent of trapped carbon goes into the ocean. If it didn’t, the surface air temperature would be 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius). But altering the ocean’s average temperature is a lot like changing your own body temperature. Imagine if it went up two degrees. It would be fatal eventually.

Glover's Reef

© XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency (Christophe Bailhache)

The film ends on a slightly hopeful note, emphasizing the need to combat climate change and describing various organizations that the team is now involved with. I suppose that’s necessary so viewers don’t leave the film crying their eyes out or falling into deep depression, even though I did have that inclination. There was no mention of personal solutions, however, which disappointed me. (When are we going to start talking about the tough lifestyle changes that need to happen, I always wonder?)

This is a very challenging story to tell, and Chasing Coral has done a fabulous job. You can (and should!) watch it on Netflix.