Saturday night, I watched the Netflix original Documentary ‘Chasing Coral’ for the first time. It chronicles the work of Richard Vevers, an underwater photographer, as he works with scientists to both understand the significance of the recent deterioration of coral reefs over the past four decades; but also how to best capture that process of life to death to better communicate the threat of extinction to a largely oblivious world public.
I personally found this documentary to be extraordinary and disturbing. Both in the incredible destruction caused to the coral reef globally thus far, as well as the logistics required to allow us, the viewer to witness what marine biologists have witnessed over and over again for decades in just a quick time lapse. What they’ve witnessed is death following coral bleaching – the white discoloration of coral as the animals remove photosynthetic algae they depend on for over 90% of their nutrients from their flesh and become transparent, showing their white bones. They later die of starvation.
As they go into some detail in ‘Chasing Coral’, temperatures in the ocean have been rising steadily. This is directly attributable to global warming, the main process of global climate change caused by the human output of carbon dioxide emissions. What many people do not realize is that a vast majority of climate change’s warming is occurring in Earth’s global oceans. Earth is an ocean planet. And unlike the the air and land, it takes a significant amount more heat energy to raise the temperature of water. With over 90% of the heat radiation being retained initially by our atmosphere is being put into Earth’s oceans, an increase of over 2 degree C (3.6 degrees F) for an enormous amount of water is incredible energy. And these spikes of 2 degree C heating above average beginning in the 1980s is what scientists discovered was the cause of coral bleaching when it was first observed in the early to mid-1980s. Since then multiple global bleaching events have taken place as the oceans have continued to warm.
‘Chasing Coral’ not only discusses the science of this process, but also shows the emotional toll taken on the scientists who have spent decades studying these beautiful animals and their structures, only to slowly witness their destruction. One older researcher basically says in reference to the dying Great Barrier Reef, “I’m ready to check out” in reference to not having to further witness “the whole ghastly mess” that is the death of such beautiful ecosystems. Depressing, but he reminds a younger researcher he speaks with that as long as they are alive they must continue to fight to protect and save what they love.
If there’s only one nitpick, it’s that the documentary didn’t go into enough detail as to the dangers the rapid collapse of the coral reef ecosystems would have on humans. But it really is a nitpick as 1) there’s only so much one can explain in limited time and 2) the real purpose of this was to illustrate the immediate life to death of the coral reefs themselves. A visual presentation is always more captivating and powerful to the human mind ultimately…and what we are witness really is the first stage of the ecological disaster which will impact humans at the other end of the Tree of Life. The documentary does go into some discussion of the fact that a quarter of ocean life depend in some way on living coral reefs and hundreds of millions of people depend on the ecosystems connected to reefs around the world for food and economic resources. Near extinction of reefs over just the next 20-30 yrs on top of other climate change related stresses from the ocean and atmosphere would be devastating for both dependent societies as well as other species. There is a major reason for nations to be involved in slowing climate change.
I highly recommend this documentary to all willing to watch it. A great use of 90 minutes of your time. I think it’s very important for the general public and other scientists alike to see the effect of climate change on nature and understand how much power we as humans have over it. It’s a power we must be responsible for. The irony of being on top of the pedestal as the most powerful life-form on Earth is that we are one of the last to suffer when things go wrong because we are so powerful and resilient. But, if we are not responsible and are cavalier about how much our world can actually handle from our lack of responsibility and stupidity, we (and other life) will pay. Humans and other life already are. ‘Chasing Coral’ serves as a stark warning with a ray of hope at the end.
Biggest takeaways from ‘Chasing Coral’- Care about your world. Stay educated and inform others.