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New Documentary Brings Viewers Beneath the Waves to See the Coral Bleaching Crisis

In Review: Chasing Coral

One of the difficulties of challenging climate change deniers, as well as with building public support and momentum for climate action, is that some of global warming’s most devastating effects occur out of the public eye in corners of the planet usually inaccessible to most people. As the old saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” But then again, as another truism puts it: “What you don’t know may kill you.”

photo of coral bleachingphoto courtesy of Chasing CoralChasing Coral takes viewers underwater to witness the impact climate change is having on coral reefs.

To make what seems invisible visible — and with the hope of spurring robust climate action — photographer James Balog and filmmaker Jeff Orlowski have traveled far and wide, bringing with them innovative cameras and audiovisual recording equipment to render the remote nearer. For his award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice, Orlowski and the Extreme Ice Survey made far-flung expeditions to Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska, using state of the art time lapse cinematography to irrefutably document glacial melt due to global warming. For his latest film, Orlowski transitioned from the Arctic to the tropics, setting his sights on coral reefs.  

Chasing Coral was actually the idea of former London adman Richard Vevers, who was alerted to ocean issues when he noticed during diving trips that the Weedy Sea Dragon, a beloved species he observed during deep sea diving, was disappearing. Learning that Elkhorn Coral, which was commonplace in the Caribbean, had been “virtually all wiped out,” as he puts it in the film, stiffened Vevers’ resolve to do something about these dramatic changes taking place underwater. After watching Chasing Ice, Vevers had an epiphany about the connection between melting ice and coral bleaching, saying, “It dawned on me that we were doing exactly the same thing, but with coral reefs.”

Vevers approached Orlowski with the notion of filming an underwater counterpart to Chasing Ice, and a team of technicians, cinematographers, and coral experts was assembled to explore the coral bleaching phenomenon, which is caused by warming waters, in the northern and southern hemispheres. The intrepid Orlowski and a crew of Argonauts embarked on Oceanic odysseys to find out what’s happening to the planet’s reefs — and why.

Orlowski took his cutting edge cameras beneath the waves in American Samoa, Australia, Bermuda, Hawaii, Bahamas, New Caledonia, the Florida Keys, and some 30 other countries and territories to make Chasing Coral. The result is a Netflix original documentary with often riveting, eye-popping, undersea cinematography that won the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Audience Award.

According to marine biologist Dr. Phil Dustan, 50 percent of the world’s corals have already been lost, including up to 80 or 90 percent of Florida’s corals since the early 1970s. Dustan, a College of Charleston biology professor, is one of Chasing Coral’s squad of scientific advisors that also includes: Australian coral reef biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who has been studying the bleaching of corals since the 1980s; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s Mark Eakin; the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology’s Dr. Ruth Gates; plus others concerned with what is considered to be Earth’s third mass global bleaching event, defined as widespread bleaching across the world’s three ocean basins, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. (In June, scientists announced that the event, which began in 2015, may finally be ending.)

photo of underwater filming Photo by Richard Vevers, courtesy of Chasing Coral Chasing Coral director Jeff Orlowski filming on the Great Barrier Reef.

The documentary explains coral bleaching is a symptom of mass coral death caused by carbon emissions and set-off by rapid ocean heating, which has been more severe than warming on land. Corals can recover from mild bleaching, but are often killed by lengthy or severe bleaching events. Orlowski and his band of filmmakers and nautical experts struggled against great odds and in daunting conditions to capture and record this process through time-lapse cinematography, similar to how Chasing Ice provided conclusive visual proof of glacial melting. But their underwater undertaking required different technology than that used for shooting in the Arctic and the filmmakers went through a painstaking trial and error period spanning months, including struggles with the timelapse equipment’s ability to shoot in focus. (This is hardly a plot spoiler, since there simply would not have been a film had the cinematographers failed to get their equipment working.) They ultimately used a pair of RED Dragon cameras inside Nauticam underwater housings that were planted amongst the coral to capture the unfolding eco-crisis.

The results are stunning. We witness jaw dropping before and after digital cinema imagery, including photos of once colorful coral canyons filled with fish, and subsequent images of their desolate skeletal remains. Images of the bleached corals appear as if they had been shot in black and white. According to press notes, Vevers considers this to be game-changing imagery because these pictures shot over a stretch of time “really showed that stark contrast” caused by this coral bleaching.

As viewers learn about corals and the ocean’s complicated ecosystem, the documentary sometimes becomes pedantic, far more educational than entertaining, like those Disney-produced old-fashioned nature docs. As was the case with Chasing Ice, Orlowski has not found an engaging form of nonfiction storytelling with the panache, for example, of a Michael Moore, whose proletarian persona alternately amuses and outrages audiences. The commercial appeal of Chasing Coral is also reduced by not having a notable narrator, such as a former politician (think Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth) or perhaps a movie star. Orlowski needs to chase down a cinematic style that will enable him to reach broader audiences in our glitzy, celebrity-driven culture.

The closest Orlowski comes to personifying and dramatizing the 87-minute picture is by depicting team member Zack Rago, a self-described “coral nerd” and enthusiast who is an onscreen character viewers can identify with. The young Colorado-born Rago is sometimes enthralled by the splendid reefs he encounters, but at other times despondent over and overwhelmed by the changes befalling coral literally before his very eyes. The 20-something Rago is also elated when he meets his childhood hero, Dr. John “Charlie” Veron, the so-called “godfather of coral reef” study who, in a commentary on aging, is still fighting the good fight, despite his advancing years.

In any case, it is to their great credit that Orlowski and his coral gladiators with their pioneering motion picture photography have cut to the chase, ensuring that the plight of our planet’s reefs are no longer out of sight or out of mind. Plunging beneath the waves, they have plucked this peril up from the depths in order to expose it above the surface with irrefutable visual evidence. Now that the obscure has been made obvious, it’s up to humanity to tackle global warming and reverse coral bleaching — before the oceans become underwater deserts depleted of their stunning beauty and biodiversity.

Chasing Coral premieres today on Netflix. For more info:

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Earth Island Journal, Rampell is co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. The book’s third edition will be released by April 2018.

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