Chasing Coral (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An imminent SOS from coral reefs

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Netflix documentary film “Chasing Coral” has an urgent environmental message for all of us. While dazzling our eyes with many wondrous sights from coral reefs, the documentary gives us the vivid, striking presentation of an imminent ecological catastrophe which has been unfortunately overlooked for many years, and it is often devastating to watch the ongoing collapse of one of the most important ecosystems on our planet.

The film begins its story with Richard Vevers, who was once an advertisement company executive but then eventually decided to devote himself to what he was really passionate about. After quitting his company, he went to tropical marine areas for enjoying underwater coral landscapes, and he subsequently founded XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which is pretty much like as an underwater equivalent of Google Maps.

Vevers tells us how he became interested in a problem which had not been noticed by many people including himself. After one of his favorite marine species was disappeared from its usual habitat area with no apparent reason, he wanted to know how that could happen, and he came to learn that many coral reefs around the world have been under a serious environmental threat. As pointed out in the documentary, 50% of coral reefs in the world was gone during last 30 years, and this disastrous happening has only become more rapid and frequent without any sign of decline.

As Vevers meets several scientific experts, we learn bits about how elaborate coral reefs are as a big, complex ecosystem. Consisting of numerous polyps, corals have formed a symbiotic relationship with algae which constantly provide nutrition via photosynthesis while living inside polyps, and they can virtually grow like trees as long as they are in an ideal environment. Evolved into a myriad number of species, corals have brought many different shapes and colors to their underwater environment, and their resulting reefs have provided habitats to thousands of marine species out there.

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As a matter of fact, our human world depends on coral reefs a lot more than you think. For instance, many animal species living around coral reef areas have been the main protein source for a considerable part of the human population on the Earth. In addition, coral reefs themselves are quite valuable as the source of numerous important biochemical substances such as prostaglandin, which is widely used for cancer therapy.

However, this precious beautiful world of corals is quite fragile in fact. Corals are very sensitive to the increase of water temperature, and they are ‘bleached’ even when water temperature is increased merely around 1-2 ℃ from their ideal temperature for living. Under that condition, algae inside corals stop photosynthesis while being toxic to coral, so corals let out algae for protecting themselves as being turned to white. Unless water temperature is decreased to the normal level, they will eventually die while being starved, and the whole ecosystem based on them will be accordingly collapsed.

Especially since 1998, coral bleaching has been more frequent around the world, and scientists already know the reason behind this alarming happening: global climate change. As many of you know, the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is resulted from the increasing combustion of fossil fuel, leads to more heat on the Earth, and the 93% of it is absorbed by the sea. While that is a good thing for us, it is a disaster for corals as the temperature of seawater is frequently increased beyond their tolerance as a result.

After learning about this serious environmental problem, Vevers decided to raise the public awareness of it, and he happened to find a right person who could help him. When he watched Jeff Orlowski’s acclaimed documentary film “Chasing Ice” (2012), Vevers noticed a clear parallel between decreasing coral reefs and the retreating glaciers shown in that documentary, so he instantly contacted Orlowsky, and that was how Orlowski became the director of “Chasing Coral”.

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For capturing the progress of coral bleaching via time-lapse cameras over several months, Orlowski and Vevers worked together along with a number of technicians. We see a special device which can protect their cameras while also being able to maintain a clear 360-degree view constantly, and we observe their considerable efforts as they try to handle several difficulties in their work. During their first trial, they only got a few clean photographs, but they were not daunted by that, and then they went for the next big chance when they were notified that the water temperature of the Great Barrier Reef would be increased considerably.

What they eventually captured on their cameras was a harrowing glimpse into another massive coral bleaching around the world, and they could not help but emotionally affected by this. For Zach Rago, one of underwater camera technicians who is also an amateur coral expert, this was painful to watch to say the least. Later in the film, we see him visiting the home of his childhood hero who introduced him to the wonder of marine life, and their conversation feels bittersweet as they talk about the ongoing crisis of corals.

At least, there are still some time and hope, and “Chasing Coral” powerfully conveys that to us in the end. Yes, the situation will be inevitably more difficult for corals and us during this century, but we may solve this big problem as becoming more aware of it, and I am glad to see this documentary getting considerable public exposure via Netflix. This is one of the most significant documentaries in this year, and I strongly recommend you to watch it right now if you can.

Chasing Coral

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