A new Netflix documentary, Chasing Coral, vividly and clearly explains what we stand to lose — and have lost already — when it comes to the world’s coral reefs.

Divers often find it hard to truly describe the peril facing coral reefs to non-diving friends. A new Netflix documentary, Chasing Coral, vividly and clearly explains what we stand to lose — and have lost already.

Chasing Coral: Must-See TV

We were vacationing in the Caribbean, so it seemed fitting to watch the new Netflix documentary, Chasing Coral. I expected it to be informative, interesting, and perhaps a bit sad, as I knew there had been a lot of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.  The approach to the information was illuminating and brought the corals to life in a way that most people haven’t seen. As a diver, it had a profound impact on me, and it’s got the potential to have a profound impact on non-divers as well.

The story began with Richard Vevers, an advertising executive, realizing the reefs he loved to dive had changed for the worse. He worked with Jeff Orlowski, the director of Netflix’s “Chasing Ice,” to present the story as you would when putting together advertising for a struggling product. The result is an eloquent, engaging, accessible science lesson, filled with stunning and shocking photography and videography. The images movingly depict changes to huge areas of the environment — and to a key ecosystem — over only four months. 

What’s happening to the world’s coral?

Vevers and Orlowski work with numerous scientists, including self-proclaimed “coral nerd” Zack Rago and photographer Trevor Mendelow to give life to corals. They explain the animals’ biological make-up, how they eat and how they fight each other for territory, among other natural processes. They even explain how corals are the only animal, other than humans, that can build their own environment and create their habitat, just like humans do with neighborhoods and cities. The goal is to create empathy for corals, because when people feel that empathy, they tend to pay attention and act. When the filmmakers compare coral to humans, and back up the point with photographic evidence, they really drive the point home.

Let me be clear that they are successful in their endeavor. I watched this documentary a second time, after I was asked to write this article, and I cried just as much the second time as I did the first, not because we have lost 50 percent of the world’s corals in the last 30 years or because 29 percent of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016, or because of a lot of charts, graphs or data.

I cried because I watched it happen — these are not rocks or even plants — they are animals and over only a 4-month period, I saw daily changes. It was impossible not to see the bleaching, the diminishing marine life, even the fluorescing that seemed like the corals crying out to be noticed. Finally, Rago films a piece of coral as it disintegrates into tiny pieces of dead tissue and then he sits on the boat and cries.

The role of climate change 

“Chasing Coral” shows a planet that’s working as hard as it can to adjust to human-created climate change, but some of these coping mechanisms can devastate entire ecosystems. Oceans absorb excess heat from the atmosphere, which in turn keeps land masses cool enough for habitation. And while ocean-surface temperatures do go through up and down cycles, the average ocean temperatures are increasing steadily. These increases operate like a fever would in our bodies. While this may be a cycle, it is not natural and the reefs — the nursery of ocean — cannot regenerate fast enough to keep up.

What can we do?

While the documentary can take you to the depths of depression, it is not without hope. “Chasing Coral” wants to cause a mindset shift because it’s not too late to change what’s happening, but we must act quickly. Several countries around the world, as well as cities within the U.S. have pledged to change, but we must expand that reach and not wait on government to act. Host a screening of the documentary. Share what you know on social media, and start making changes at home. Download the action guide from Chasing Coral’s website to get started.

Chasing Coral is a must-watch for all ages, and especially for non-divers or those uninterested in ocean issues. It creates a lasting impact, and encourages us to focus on hope for the future instead of giving up in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem. We have, as the documentary states, “a unique moment in time, where we can change history.” And so we must. To learn more, please visit chasingcoral.com.

Cover photo credit:  The Ocean Agency – XL Catlin Seaview Survey – Richard Vevers

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