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  • Writer's pictureKaaya Sharma

Chasing Coral: the death of a remarkable ecosystem

Chasing Coral (2017), a documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski, focuses on a team of divers, scientists, and photographers who document the disappearance of coral reefs. The film starts off with Richard Vevers, an advertising executive, who leaves his successful advertising career for undersea photography. After a few years into his venture, he notices that some of his favorite marine creatures, including weedy sea dragons and corals, are disappearing.

Richard seeks advice from Ruth Gates, a coral reef biologist, who explains that corals are living organisms. They are sophisticated animals with thousands of tiny structures called polyps. Each polyp has a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles. Inside the polyps, small plants called micro-algae photosynthesize during the day to provide the corals with food. Essentially, corals have food factories living inside of themselves. Corals are the only creatures on Earth, after man, capable of building their own environment, habitats, cities, and high-rise structures with incredible dimensionality. The more complex these structures get, the more biodiversity they can potentially host to live there.

The Great Barrier Reef is the Manhattan of the ocean—an incredibly diverse and complex city with different fish living in specific places. These fish live in the same neighborhoods pretty much their entire life. Coral reefs are not only foundational species serving the livelihood of almost 25% of organisms underwater, but they are also a source of food, medicine, and income for over 500 million people around the world.

Our ocean controls everything. It controls the weather, climate, and the oxygen we breathe. Without a healthy ocean, we do not have a healthy planet. In the 1980s, scientists noticed coral bleaching for the first time. After several experiments, they realized that the corals weren’t dying because of some disease or too much light, but due to global warming. Within the last thirty years, we are seeing substantial heatwaves traveling around the world. When we burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere. The more carbon dioxide is in the air, the greater the amount of heat trapped by the Earth, and 93% of this heat goes into the ocean. Therefore, a slight temperature shift may not matter on land or in the air, but it can be fatal for animals living in the sea.

In 2016, Richard Vevers decided to develop a project called the XL Catlin Seaview Survey. He wanted to reveal what was happening in the oceans around the world. The turning point for Richard was when the Airport Reef he often visited had turned white within a matter of six months. He eventually found that in the last 30 years, we have lost about 50% of the world’s corals.

After watching Chasing Ice (2012) by Jeff Orlowski—a documentary film about the disappearing Arctic glaciers—Richard reached out to Jeff about making a film about the dying coral reefs. They both decided to work together and hired Zack Rago, a self-described ‘coral nerd’ and underwater camera technician, to develop a camera that would record what was happening to the coral reefs in different stages. Since it was challenging for the still cameras left under the sea to precisely capture clear shots, Richard and his team decided to personally dive down every single day for 40 consecutive days at Lizard Island and the New Caledonia area in the Great Barrier Reef to monitor the changes. What they captured on film is not only emotional but truly remarkable. When coral bleaching occurs, we not only lose a beautiful animal but also a fundamental part of our vast ecosystem, which affects the livelihood of almost 25% of the ocean’s creatures and millions of people around the world. In 2016 alone, we lost 29% of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef as a result of coral bleaching. This bleaching event was the longest, the deadliest, and the most widespread in history. To lose 29% of coral animals in a single year is mind-blowing.

Based on current trends, within the next 30 years, annual bleaching will probably kill most of the world’s corals. If we don’t address the planet’s global warming soon, we will lose this ecosystem, and millions of animals and people will suffer as a result. If corals disappear, the little fish will disappear, then the big fish and land animals, and finally, the human population will also be affected. At the rate we are going, we only have about 25 years before the ocean becomes too warm for coral reefs to survive. It is still not too late to save coral reefs and other ecosystems affected by climate change. However, we must act quickly as this is the only thing that is within our power.


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