Why watching Chasing Coral on Netflix can help save the planet

© Chasing Coral

The world is changing much faster than I ever could have imagined ‒ and nowhere is this more evident than in the ocean, with Exhibit A, the coral reefs.

A powerful new film, Chasing Coral (on Netflix), really got to me. It has also added to the sensation that we have entered a new phase of urgency for the planet but that the message is still not quite getting through, or at least not enough.

In watching this film, I know I won’t be alone in reflecting on my own life and on how we’ve reached this point so quickly.

© Chasing Coral

Growing up with the reef

I grew up in north Queensland, the hinterland of the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is so much of a feature of the region that it just becomes part of life. Some of my mates had family tourism or fishing businesses on the reef or went there at least once a year for the school holidays. We definitely took the reef for granted but deep down, we also knew it was special: after all, why else would people from halfway around the world spend their hard-earned to visit our backyard?

I’ll always remember the trips we took from Townsville to the outer reefs which meant an overnight voyage. Waking up early in the morning, I’d notice the boat’s rocking and pitching eased which meant we were getting close to the reef and its calming, sheltering effect. Then I’d scramble out onto the deck to see the water shifting from greens to blues, getting shallower, and I’d know that we’d be in the water soon, seeing something grand and unfathomable, and always surprising and exciting.

Little did I know back then that one day I’d be responsible for the overall management of the reef as executive director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. That was an exciting and fulfilling experience, a privilege and one of the highlights of my career. But it was not without its daunting moments too, and the signals were coming in that all was not well.

We knew in the late nineties that the reef was under mounting pressure. So we set about fully protecting a third of the marine park from fishing to rebuild the reef’s resilience, and that’s been paying off ever since. The ‘green zones’ have helped ecosystems to recover and export fish larvae and bigger adult fish to surrounding areas.

That was a tough and controversial reform but we knew we needed to act. However, nothing could have prepared us for what we’ve seen in the last two years.

© Chasing Coral

Documenting a tragedy

We’ve witnessed the terrible images of vast areas of the magnificent reef being turned stark white from two underwater heat waves in succession. Bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef has killed about 50% of the coral over the past two years. Reef scientists I’ve known for a lifetime and who’ve seen plenty of serious harm to reefs in their careers have been reduced to tears at what is happening.

Mass coral bleaching has hit harder and bigger than anyone can really comprehend. Even seen from high above in a helicopter, the coral graveyard stretches as far as the eye can see in some places. But the bleaching didn’t hit everywhere and that’s the hope we need to cling to.

I first met Richard Vevers — whose story is such a strong theme of Chasing Coral ‒ at COP21, the now famous climate talks in Paris in 2015. WWF had a team there working to lift the profile of coral reefs just as the mass global coral bleaching was starting but long before we knew how bad it would get.

We were using our social media reach to help show the world the first powerful images that Richard and his colleagues were documenting of the bleaching with their remarkable underwater cameras. We knew that a film crew was working on a project to tell the story of what was happening to coral reefs but even so, and despite much of my life observing and managing reefs, the final version of Chasing Coral had a deep impact on me when I saw it at a pre-screening.

I just knew we needed to do everything we could to help get the word out.

John Tanzer and Richard Vevers (featured in Chasing Coral) at the COP21 climate talks, Paris, 2015, discussing the urgent need for deeper emissions cuts to protect coral reefs. © Paul Gamblin/WWF

Driven to help people

Despite my lifelong connection to the Great Barrier Reef, there is something else that drives me to seek to find solutions to rescue coral reefs from the ominous future they face.

I have been fortunate to spend time with small communities in places like Solomon Islands, Indonesia and Madagascar where coral reefs are intrinsic to life and survival. It is no exaggeration to say that for many people right across Asia, Africa and Latin America, coral reefs are the provider and protector of life itself.

A healthy reef is the sole source of food in some places, or one of only a few options in others. Reefs provide fish to trade in local markets for essentials and are often the last line of defence, absorbing the fearsome energy of waves whipped up by tropical storms. What is happening to reefs ‒ their rapid decline ‒ will inevitably become a humanitarian disaster, and will have major economic implications too.

We have been working to get the word out about these wider impacts in collaboration with another key figure in the film who is an old friend and colleague of mine, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. Ove runs the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland and was one of the first scientists to begin sounding the alarm about how serious a threat climate change would be to coral reefs around the world. Ove’s vital work and that of other major scientists must now be given the serious attention that is so clearly long overdue.

© XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Millions must watch

I won’t describe here the detail of the solutions for coral reefs to have a fighting chance of surviving the century. For the most part these are widely known and focus on rapidly cutting carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing the specific pressures on reefs so they can be as healthy as possible to better withstand the impacts of climate change that are already baked into the system.

What we really need is the political will to make the changes we know are needed. This means galvanising millions, and that’s where the film can help (and the filmmakers, participants and Netflix deserve great credit).

That’s why I want to urge you to see Chasing Coral and to encourage everyone you know who cares about the future to see it too.

I watched it as a conservationist. I watched it as a father. I saw it as a fellow human. Seeing Chasing Coral, and talking about it, is just so important.

I guarantee that you will not forget this film or its impact.

John Tanzer is the leader of WWF’s Global Oceans Practice.

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