For years now, the melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have been the poster children for climate change, iconic harbingers of a warming world. A new documentary, “Chasing Coral,” released Friday on Netflix, aims to bring the same attention to the plight of the world’s coral reefs.
“One of the biggest issues with the ocean is that it is completely out of sight and out of mind,” says advertising executive-turned-environmentalist Richard Vevers in some of the documentary’s opening lines. “And that essentially is an advertising issue.”
The film follows the efforts of Vevers, the founder and CEO of conservation organization the Ocean Agency, and a team of photographers and coral enthusiasts as they attempt to document the unfolding of a global coral bleaching event with the help of sophisticated underwater cameras. The film is directed by Jeff Orlowski, director and producer of the award-winning 2012 documentary “Chasing Ice,” which focused on environmental photographer James Balog’s attempt to chronicle the melting and retreat of glaciers all over the world with time lapse photography.
“My dream scenario is that this imagery now becomes the poster image of climate change,” Orlowski told The Washington Post of “Chasing Coral.” Melting ice, he said, has been the center of attention for years now — but it’s become all too easy for climate doubters to dismiss its importance, suggesting that glaciers have always naturally advanced and retreated or brushing them off because they aren’t living things.
“The hope is that we’re now telling a visual story with a completely new ecosystem that is disappearing,” he said. “It’s not just water changing states, it is life dying — and it’s an incredibly rich, biodiverse ecosystem that’s dying. That’s the story.”
It’s a narrative, he said, that he hopes “will completely change how people talk about climate change.”
The effect of climate change on coral reefs has come to the forefront of marine scientists’ attention within the past two decades after multiple global bleaching events — sparked by higher-than-usual ocean temperatures — have ravaged the world’s reefs. The first of these occurred in 1998, followed by a second in 2010. The most recent event, which occurred between 2014 and 2017, is believed to be both the longest and most damaging global bleaching event on record.
While previous bleaching events, including the 1998 event and the most recent global bleaching event, have been significantly influenced by the effects of El Niño, which often causes a temporary spike in ocean temperatures in certain parts of the world, scientists believe that climate change is playing an ever-growing role in the warming of the seas. Their concern is that as the world continues to heat up, bleaching events will become more and more frequent, and coral reefs will have less time between the events to recover, leading to more widespread coral death.
Indeed, these effects are already becoming apparent. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the most recent global bleaching event saw bleaching-level temperatures at 70 percent of the world’s coral reefs. Scientists are still reviewing the data, but some believe that this event caused even more damage overall than the 1998 bleaching event, which killed about 16 percent of corals worldwide.
“Chasing Coral” focuses primarily on Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef, which has been one of the most recent bleaching event’s biggest casualties. Surveys suggest that at least 900 miles of the 1,400-mile-long reef have severely bleached since 2016. And last year, scientists reported that about two-thirds of the reef’s northern sector had died.
Vevers’s goal for the project, which kicked off just as the global bleaching event was beginning to unfold, was to create a detailed documentation of coral bleaching with time-lapse photography, using special underwater camera installations mounted and left under the water for weeks at a time, in much the same way that James Balog did in the documentary “Chasing Ice.”
The project runs into its fair share of challenges along the way, with equipment malfunctions and severe weather threatening its progress. During one particularly suspenseful stint on the Great Barrier Reef, a monster storm forces the team to temporarily abandon its specialized equipment underwater and move to a new location, where they spend weeks meticulously capturing images of the bleaching coral by hand every day.
But action and adventure aside, the film’s greatest challenge may have been how to frame the plight of the coral reefs — if marine conservation is, indeed, an “advertising issue” as Vevers suggest, is it best advertised as a story of hope or a story of despair? At certain points in the documentary, even the film’s subjects seem unsure.
During a particularly poignant conversation between camera technician and coral enthusiast Zack Rago and veteran coral researcher Charlie Veron, the older scientist comments sadly that he’s “glad I’m not your age.”
“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,” he says as the cameras rolls. But in the next breath, he urges the young Rago to “keep at it,” adding, “you’re going to like yourself much more if you can say, ‘Well, I sure tried to turn that around — and maybe I did influence people here and there.’ ”
And Vevers himself, expresses a complicated mix of emotions at the end of the film, suggesting that the project should have made him “the most depressed person on the planet,” but adding that the climate action and clean energy commitments being pledged all over the world are still giving him hope that it’s not too late to save the planet.
The back-and-forth echoes a similar, ongoing debate among coral researchers around the world. While much of the recent narrative has presented a gloomy picture of the future of coral reefs — one oft-cited recent statistic suggests that 90 percent of the world’s reefs will die by the year 2050 on our current climate trajectory — some scientists are now advocating for a more hopeful point of view.
A recent paper in the journal Nature, authored by more than a dozen experts around the world, suggests that with a little human assistance, corals are unlikely to disappear entirely — although the reefs of the future may look a lot different than they do today. In fact, this very idea inspired Vevers to help found the 50 Reefs project, which focuses on identifying the corals that seem to be best surviving the current crisis, in the hopes that they might serve as the seeds that will repopulate the world’s reefs in the future.
While the team members in “Chasing Coral” certainly run through the gamut of emotions in the film, Vevers suggests that the most effective way of reaching an audience is probably presenting both a little despair and a little optimism.
“From a communications point of view, it’s getting the combination right,” Vevers said. “Yes, you do need to realize the stakes and this is a problem. But if you just concentrate on the doom and gloom, people switch off to it and it all becomes too hard. So you need to then also look at the solutions and to show it’s all achievable.”