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‘Chasing Coral’ and an Inconvenient Truth About the Ocean Climate Crisis

Jeff Orlowski, director of a new documentary that filmed the real-time death of coral reefs from rising temperatures, talks about how to depoliticize ocean issues to reach a broad audience.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Filming a coral reef. The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey/Christophe Bailhache

A decade ago, the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” catapulted climate change into the public consciousness, energizing a new generation of activists. In 2013, “Blackfish” sparked a backlash against marine mammal captivity that eventually forced SeaWorld to stop breeding killer whales for profit.

Now comes “Chasing Coral,” a visually and emotionally stunning documentary that captures in real time the death of vibrant ocean ecosystems from waves of coral bleaching triggered by rising ocean temperatures. The film, which premieres July 14 on Netflix, makes an ocean climate crisis that has been largely out of sight and out of mind unavoidably real. There’s no looking away as your house burns down.

Director Jeff Orlowski’s previous film, “Chasing Ice” (2012), documented photographer James Balog’s years-long quest to put on screen the real-time melting of glaciers across the Arctic. In “Chasing Coral” Orlowski, 33, teams up with Richard Vevers, a London advertising executive turned ocean activist who is on a mission to alert the world to the death of complex coral ecosystems crucial to the health of people and the planet. The idea: place cameras under water at reefs in Bermuda, the Bahamas and Hawaii and photograph the changes as ocean temperatures rise.

It doesn’t go according to plan. Technological glitches scuttle the project and in 2015 the team relocates to Australia, where coral bleaching is expected to hit the Great Barrier Reef. The film combines pulsating Technicolor footage of otherworldly coral reefs and marine creatures with a cast of coral scientists who succinctly, if occasionally mournfully, describe an ongoing climate catastrophe that has killed half the world’s corals over the past 30 years. The rest could be eradicated by the end of the century unless action is taken to slash fossil fuel emissions.

The emotional heart of “Chasing Coral” is Zack Rago, an earnest, mop-haired 23-year-old camera technician and self-described “coral nerd” who, along with Orlowski, spends 40 days filming the same section of the Great Barrier Reef off Lizard Island. The movie shows the reef dying bit by bit each day, the color draining from the corals, the neon-colored fish disappearing until it is a ghostly wasteland.

“The Great Barrier Reef was like my Mecca,” says Rago in the film. “It’s a place I’ve been trying to get to my entire life. And then to finally go there, just to watch it die before my eyes, was pretty awful. By the end, there was little to nothing alive. It hit me pretty hard.”

As Rago presents footage to a coral reef conference in Hawaii, usually dispassionate coral scientists shed tears. “This has got to wake up the world,” Vevers says.

“Chasing Coral” premieres as ocean issues are on the global agenda. The United Nations convened its first ocean conference last month (where the film was screened) and delegates are now gathering at the U.N. to work on a treaty to preserve the biodiversity of the high seas.

Oceans Deeply talked to Orlowski about how he hopes “Chasing Coral” will spur action on the ocean crisis and why coral scientists are speaking out.

Oceans Deeply: “Chasing Coral” has been described as “An Inconvenient Truth” for the ocean. When you set out to make the film did you hope it would have a similar impact in raising awareness of ocean issues that Al Gore did for climate change a decade ago?

Jeff Orlowski: I wanted it to be the definitive proof on climate change and ocean change, which is how I would think of the project. What we’re trying to do here, through visual storytelling, is provide visual evidence of what’s happening, very much in the same philosophy of our last film, “Chasing Ice.” So it is sort of this quest to show people what’s happening and to separate it from the debate and separate it from the politics, and in some ways separate it from the science, charts and graphs and arguments and just show people something that really taps into that notion that seeing is believing.

Oceans Deeply: Your previous film, “Chasing Ice,” was inter-cut with clips of climate-change deniers and debates over global warming. There is no debate in “Chasing Coral.” Did you want to depoliticize the issue?

Orlowski: After making that film we spent a lot of time talking to people all across the country with a lot of different perspectives on climate change. And there is skepticism in the country, obviously, and I understand why as there’s a lot of confusing information out there; there’s a lot of misinformation, a lot of it is intentionally spread. For the average person who isn’t an expert, who isn’t studying this, who are living their daily lives and who are not reading science papers, it’s understandable that people are confused about the issue. What we wanted to do here is look at all those different audiences and try to share with them a story that makes it as clear-cut as we could figure out how to do.

Oceans Deeply: Since the U.S. presidential election, climate change has become more polarizing than ever. Has that complicated efforts to reach audiences in places like Texas and Georgia?

Orlowski: I actually haven’t found it to be super-difficult for us to engage with those audiences – I think in part because we’re coming in with a very politically neutral story. We’re not coming up with a story trying to attack people based on their political beliefs. This is a story about what’s happening in the oceans and what’s going on today and it’s something hopefully that will resonate with any audience. People might have preconceived notions or biases around the subject of climate change but we’re focused on ocean change here and what’s happening in the ocean.

Oceans Deeply: What kind of reaction have you had with audiences who might not be attuned to these issues?

Orlowski: Consistently the response to the film has been overwhelming positive. We’ve done screenings now at many film festivals, screenings all around the country. We did one screening in Texas. The response there was overwhelmingly positive. We’re extremely excited to have the film launch on Netflix to get even more of a global audience seeing the movie and asking questions and engaging in conversation. That’s a huge, huge opportunity. We’re doing a big impact campaign to help take this film to unexpected audiences and to unexpected places where we can really have deeper conversations with local communities about what’s happening in the oceans and what they can do about it as well.

Oceans Deeply: One of the striking things in “Chasing Coral” is the emotion some scientists express and even the tears some shed at the images. At the end of the film, pioneering Australian coral scientist Charlie Veron says: “I get cross with myself because I don’t think I did enough, I didn’t make enough noise.” Should scientists be less dispassionate when trying to engage the public about the threats the ocean faces?

Orlowski: For a long time scientists have been dissuaded from engaging with the public or doing press. But we’ve got to a place where there are dire consequences to the political decisions made around the science and I think that’s why scientists have grown so frustrated and feel so disempowered. Scientists for a long time have been doing everything they were taught to do and the way they were taught to do it: Be objective and do not voice opinion and do not put personal emotions into it and write your papers, and there will be politicians who will read those papers and make educated decisions based on that.

All that sounds great, except up to that last part, which doesn’t seem to happen. And we’re in a situation right now where politicians are not making decisions based on the best available science. That’s why I think so many scientists have become so frustrated. They feel like they’re doing their work in the way they were taught to do it and it’s not been listened to, it’s not being heeded and they feel like they’re screaming into the wind.

I don’t think it’s my place to say should scientists be more or less opinionated on any of these things, but I do know there are a lot that I’ve met who feel more and more compelled to speak out to make sure their voice is heard. I do think science has a problem in communicating with the general public. That’s what I feel our work is trying to do. We’re trying to be a middleman for the science community, a translator for the science community to help the scientists get their voice out and their knowledge and understanding out in an acceptable way.

A scene showing bleached coral from “Chasing Coral.” (Chasing Coral)

Oceans Deeply: The passion and the frustration of the coral reef scientists came out in this film. Did that surprise you?

Orlowski: Yes and no. All these coral reef scientist are studying this because they love these ecosystems. That’s why they got into this field. They certainly weren’t trying to be some climate environmental activists. Most of the people have been working on it for 20, 30, 40 years. Like Charlie Veron said in the film, when he was first diving he never saw the need to protect the Great Barrier Reef because it was too big to fail. And the changes that have happened have been so startling. The scientists love these ecosystems and they want to do what they can to protect them so understandably some of them do get emotional over it. We’re talking about the very loss of these entire ecosystems.

Oceans Deeply: I’ve seen people in tears watching “Chasing Coral.” What reaction do you want people to have to the film and what do you want it to inspire them to do?

Orlowski: I hope they feel and see the very extreme threats being faced by the oceans now. It’s probably worse than they had previously thought, and in most cases that’s how we’ve found audiences respond. But at the same time we do leave an optimistic and hopeful tone at the end at the film because myself and our team are optimistic. There is such a huge, huge shift that we’re seeing in technology and in consciousness around this issue. The optimism is real. Hopefully the audiences feel that while things are worse than they thought, at the same time things are better than they were in terms of the options available moving forward.

Oceans Deeply: The film premieres at a time when we seem to be at an inflection point on ocean issues. The United Nations Ocean Conference took place last month and the U.N. this week is working on an international treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas. Do you feel we’re at a tipping point on ocean issues?

Orlowski: Absolutely. Oceans are the front line on climate change. They’re absorbing the vast majority of the heat – over 90 percent of the heat from climate change is being trapped in the ocean. The impacts of an ever-growing population, those stresses are being felt more and more on the ocean as a whole. So the attention and awareness that people are bringing to the ocean could not have come any sooner. It needs to happen urgently.

It’s also something where the oceans aren’t seen as a political divide. Climate change might be politicized but the oceans are not. There’s not like an anti-ocean party. So hopefully people can come together around this shared resource. It’s an absolute necessity for the functioning of life on Earth and we need to protect it for the stability of all the ecosystems that humanity depends on.

Oceans Deeply: What will you be chasing next?

Orlowski: I definitely could use a little bit of a break! But more seriously, we really want to focus on getting the film out there and get it seen widely. So for the foreseeable future our team is dedicated to trying to have as much impact as we can with this film; when the next production comes up and when there’s something that feels like there’s a story to be told and we can make a big contribution to telling it, then we figure that out.

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