Documentary December: Chasing Coral

Last year, I watched Before the Flood, a critically-acclaimed documentary on the effects of climate change. I was so intrigued and inspired that I was compelled to share the message here on my blog. Climate change is horrifying. It hurts ever fiber of my being to even think about, but it is the sad reality we face if we don’t act now. After that, I went on a bit of binge and shared my thoughts on two other incredibly interesting and eye-opening documentaries. And so, Documentary December was born. With all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to get caught up and forget to look outside of your own little world. I think that’s why I enjoyed delving into these documentaries so much during the month of December—because they allowed me to see what was going on in the rest of the world.

When I heard about Chasing Coral, I was excited to take a look at life under the sea. I have always been fascinated by the oceans. I was born on the west coast and grew up on the east coast, so I’ve never been too far from the water. And I’ve taken every opportunity to enjoy it any time I can (including scuba diving and snorkeling for the first time last year). There is something endlessly calming about the crashing of waves on a shore, or the feeling of floating in the salt water. Something that feels like home. There is also so much that is unknown or unexplored under the water’s surface, but it deserves our attention.

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Chasing Coral, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is a 2017 documentary film that follows a team of divers, scientists, and photographers as they document the bleaching and disappearance of coral reefs around the world. Ocean Agency, a non-profit organization, developed a unique underwater camera and took Google Street View underwater. Now, anyone with internet access can experience a virtual dive in oceans all over the world. That wasn’t enough though. Richard Vevers, founder of the Ocean Agency, and Orlowski joined forces to show the toll climate change has taken on coral reefs. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary.

The film opens with stunning images of underwater scenes: sea turtles, sting rays, and fish of all sizes. Between the blues upon blues of the water, there are the countless other colors of the ocean: white sand and purple anemones and green seagrasses. There is life everywhere you look—except the corals. There is nothing left but skeletons of the once-thriving symbiotic creatures. In only the last thirty years, we have lost 50% of the world’s corals. They’re not just some cool colored plants that grow at the bottom of the ocean. Corals are animals, each made up of thousands of small structures called polyps, and they are the reason we have reefs. They are the largest structures of biological origin on Earth. A quarter of all marine life relies on coral reefs, and at least half a billion people rely on them as their main source of food. Our planet needs healthy coral reefs, but warmer temperatures threaten their existence.

Climate change affects more than the air we breathe or the temperature around us. A change of one or two degrees Celsius may not seem like much, but think of what affect that would have on your body. The average human body temperature is 37°C (98.6°F). If that rose two degrees, up to 39°C (102.2°F), it would kill you over time. The same is true of ocean temperatures. Warmer water causes corals to bleach and, ultimately, die. If they disappear, then so do the little fish, and the big fish, and anyone who benefits from all of the fish in the ocean. The loss of coral is “the beginning of an ecological collapse of the entire ecosystem.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has existed to some extent since the early 1800’s, studies the conditions of the oceans and the atmosphere. They have recorded three global mass bleaching events as a result of global warming: the first in the late ’90s, another in 2010, and the third only five years later, in 2015. The following year, nearly a third of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was lost. Twenty-nine percent of the corals—dead. (It’s the equivalent of losing most of the trees between Maine and Washington, D.C.) This has been the longest, deadliest, and most widespread bleaching in history. At this rate, we will lose most of the world’s coral within thirty years. This is a catastrophic loss we simply cannot afford. In my lifetime, and in most of yours, coral reefs could disappear completely and oceans as we know them would never be the same.

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“Most people stare up into space with wonder, yet we have this almost alien-world on our own planet—just teeming with life. But it’s a world most people never explore.” – Richard Vevers

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“By looking at the history of the reef, we’re absolutely certain that what we’re seeing now is not a natural fluctuation. The cause in unequivocally global climate change driven by emitting carbon into the atmosphere.” – Dr. Justin Marshall

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“This is one of the rarest events in nature happening, and everyone’s just oblivious to it. It’s almost typical of all of humanity. This is going on and no one is noticing.” – Richard Vevers

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“Do we need forests? Do we need trees? Do we need reefs? Or can we just sort of live in the ashes of all of that?” – Dr. Phil Dustan

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“The corals are the real basis of that ecosystem. You can’t have a city without buildings. And you can’t have a coral reef without the corals.” – Dr. Joanie Kleypas

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“This is the most beautiful transformation in nature: the incredibly beautiful phase of death. And it feels as if it’s the corals saying ‘Look at me. Please notice.'” – Richard Vevers

Zack Rago, a camera technician and coral expert, was part of the team that documented the recent coral bleaching in Australia. When high-tech time-lapse cameras failed to capture the images the team needed, Rago was there to dive to the same corals every day and document the changes manually. At the International Coral Reef Symposium, he shared the images he and his colleagues collected. Over the course of two months, the corals lost their shape, their color, their fish life. Soft corals disintegrated and left behind barren rock faces. Hard corals bleached and became covered in algae. The images are devastating.

Sometimes I am exhausted by all of the things I have learned about climate change, and all of the things I have tried to do to fight it. I don’t know if anyone actually hears me when I talk about these things, but I’m begging you to listen. To do something. To care. I have no choice, and neither do you. If you take anything away from this documentary or this post, let it be this: it is not too late for coral reefs. We can reduce the rate at which the climate is changing. We can stop the coral from bleaching. We can save our oceans.

“Losing the Barrier Reef has actually got to mean something. You can’t let it just die and it becomes an old textbook. It’s got to cause the change that it deserves. Us losing the Great Barrier Reef has got to wake up the world.” – Richard Vevers

You can view Chasing Coral on Netflix, or learn more about what you can do to protect coral reefs here. If there are any documentaries you think I should watch this month, leave a comment and let me know.

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