There is a scene in the new Netflix documentary Chasing Coral where the camera zooms in on the unending white of the coral reefs off the Florida coast. Shimmery, the unending beds of coral look striking even in their denuded beauty, until the narrator informs you that the white is a sign of death.
Director Jeff Orlowski, who made the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, about the melting of the Antarctic glaciers, returns with a new production that scooped up the Audience Award for the Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Festival. A look at the great underwater biomass and its frighteningly quick depletion, the film is equal parts scary and humbling.
Climate change remains a hotly debated topic, as American President Donald Trump’s quitting the Paris Accord attests. This is partly due to the unsettled science of the subject, as claims about a unidimensional global warming fail to find evidence with cyclic climate patterns. But overshadowed by the numbers and the bickering is a less visible aspect of the debate that Chasing Coral showcases.
Upto 93% of the heat energy trapped in the atmosphere by carbon dioxide (what is known as the greenhouse effect) is sunk into the oceans. The resultant temperature increase – of the order of a degree – may not be immediately discernible to humans or other land species but is striking for ocean life. It’s like, the documentary tells us, the human body temperature rising by a degree, which would be fatal.
To capture this effect, Orlowski puts together a team which comprises Richard Vevers, an advertising executive who shifted allegiance to the corals, and Zachary Rago, a camera expert and coral lover whose life’s aim is to shoot the corals in time-lapse photography.
Indeed, the corals are a truly fascinating product of nature. They are animals that host tiny plants within them, plants that photosynthesise and provide food to the coral. They are the buildings of the underwater city, Orlowski tells us, within which thrive all manner of marine life, from the tiniest algae to the biggest fish.
With increasing temperatures, the plants stop photosynthesising and are eliminated by the coral, turning the body white, which is really the skeleton of the animal. Vevers and Rago travel to the Bahamas, Hawaii and Bermuda to capture this “bleaching”. For sceptics, the fact that this bleaching has taken place on a global scale twice since the ‘80s is a sobering thought, more evidence that climate change is a real phenomenon.
As with all nature photography, the most beautiful shots in the film are composed of underwater vistas of the corals in all their majesty. Even the dying white corals are revealed to subsequently emit a remarkable fluorescent colour, a “plea”, in Orlowski’s words, for the world to notice their plight.
The team’s final destination is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest gathering of corals, an area that has also been affected by the depredations of warming. In 2016 alone, close to a fifth of the corals here died, a statistic that would have made heads turn if it happened to a species on land.
The ocean, from which all life began, is now giving us the signs of the disaster that lies in store for the planet should steps not be taken to halt the effects of global warming. Chasing Coral is a timely documentary, a chronicle both of the beauty that remains out of sight and therefore out of mind and of the urgent need to focus our energies on a matter that has been hijacked by politics.