Around the globe, coral reefs are a source of beauty and wonder. Every year, thousands travel just to experience their beauty—and witness the abundant life created by these aquatic communities.
The reefs are also essential to life on our planet. Some call them the ocean’s nursery. At least 25 percent of marine species live there—and the livelihood of about 500 million people worldwide are tied to fisheries the coral reefs nurture.
But, for the last 20 years, life on the reefs has been vanishing.
It’s called coral bleaching. Higher ocean temperatures which cause polyps – the animals that live in the coral – to expel the algae embedded in their tissues. That algae is what supports life in the reef.
For his new film, Chasing Coral, producer/director Jeff Orlowski tracked the extent of the third global bleaching event that began in 2014.
“Corals can survive up to a certain temperature. Just like the human body, we have a certain sweet spot at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Orlowski. “But, if everybody in the city’s temperature was raised to 102 degrees, you’d see a lot of people dying. That’s what’s happening in the oceans. The temperature is literally becoming too hot for the corals to survive in.”
The first global bleaching event took place in 1998, an El Niño year, when ocean temperatures are typically higher.
But since then, the recurrence, duration AND severity of these bleaching events has gotten worse. Many now worry about a point of no return. Orlowski believes these events may become a regular pattern.
“We’re now seeing these bleaching events are happening without El Ninos. That’s how much the oceans have been warming. This rising baseline – those El Nino used to be a spike. Now it’s just hot enough that you don’t need that spike – a big El Nino – for a bleaching events to happen.”
For the project they joined former ad man turned ocean activist Richard Vevers. Through expeditions sponsored by XL Catlin and the Ocean Agency, Vevers had already been working with customized Google Streetview cameras to document the world’s reefs.
VIDEO: Google Earth images from the XL Catlin Seaview Survey
The team also worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to detect bleaching hotspots. Their travels took them to reefs in over 20 countries, including locations in: Samoa, Hawaii, Florida, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Documenting climate change isn’t new for Orlowski. When he was still a senior at Stanford, he joined climate photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey. That program used time-lapse video to document the rapid thaw of the world’s glaciers.
“It was a massive education in how to express these stories visually,” said Orlowski. “How to get these stories and reveal them in a way that audiences can understand and feel emotionally.”
The resulting film, Chasing Ice, earned Orlowski and team an Emmy in 2014.
For Chasing Coral, Zachary Rago of Colorado company View Into the Blue, helped build underwater camera systems that could film the reef for months at a time.
“In the ocean, things get dirty really quickly,” said Rago. “The ocean’s competitive, so new space to grow on. Things start growing within 12 hours.”
Despite a difficult ocean environment, Rago’s on-the fly-innovations helped assure their images of the reef were pristine.
“You can go back and you’ll see every piece of the camera system has something – algae or some life growing on it,” said Orlowski” “Because of that windshield wiper, that glass dome is sparkling clean. And it pops! And everything else has life growing all over it.”
The result is a detailed and troubling view of present day coral reefs. Even the filmmakers were shocked by what they saw.
“Just the sheer mortality we saw on the Great Barrier Reef was never in the plans.”
According to the film, the bleaching event that began in 2014 has been the longest, deadliest, and most widespread in history.
“Last year, 29 percent of the Great Barrier Reef died, which is mind boggling,” Orlowski said. “We’re entering into a new era of ocean chemistry, ocean temperatures, that we’ve never seen before on this planet.”
Based on current warming trends, most of the world’s corals could be dead within the next 30 years.
“We need to go through a huge shift in how people think about relating to the planet. And if we don’t go through this transformation, things will get ugly on this planet.”
With the US. administration withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, Orlowski hopes global warming skeptics might review the visual evidence and take a moment to reconsider.
“This is not a political story. This issue has become politicized for some reason. But we’re out there trying to see how the planet’s changing. What’s happening on the planet. Can we visualize that? Can we document it in a way that the public can get their heads around. There’s a lot of confusing information out there on climate change. We’re just trying to bring some clarity through the pictures.”
Still, the team that made Chasing Coral hope that, through the film, more people can understand the role coral reefs play in the life of our planet. AND, perhaps join the effort to help save them.
“I think the coolest thing for me is the global call out where we asked divers and everyday people to document what’s happening in their backyards,” said Rago. “That’s extremely important. I think that technology and more accessible technology around the world has made it easier for the average person to jump onboard to a project like this and actually do a lot of good.”
Chasing Coral is available on Netflix, and in limited theatrical release through Summer 2017.