“Chasing Coral” to Save Humanity

Chasing Coral releases globally on Netflix on July 14

The opening line of the documentary film Chasing Coral comes from Richard Vevers: “I used to be an ad man,” he says.

As someone who has worked in the advertising industry, I was struck by those words. What made this former London advertising executive leave his career to take photos of coral reefs?

And so the story of Chasing Coral begins. The 93-minute documentary takes viewers behind-the-scenes of a phenomenal effort led by scientists and storytellers to document the damaging effects of global climate change through the power of film and timelapse photography.

Spoiler alert: our coral reefs are dying.

In fact, they are dying faster than they can recover, at unprecedented rates — an aberration of the earth’s natural cycles.

Vevers, who has dedicated his newfound photography passion to saving vanishing reefs, explains how solving environmental crises like “coral bleaching” is essentially an advertising issue.

Like any good marketer knows, you have to communicate complex ideas in engaging, succinct ways to prompt audiences to take action. Except in the case of Chasing Coral, the action is not buying a product but rather saving the planet.

Race against time

Chasing Coral will be available for streaming on Netflix starting July 14. As a preview, this past Monday night, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) hosted a free community screening as part of its Film Independent series, including a discussion with director, producer and filmmaker Jeff Orlowski of Exposure Labs.

This film is a follow-up to filmmaker Orlowki’s award-winning work Chasing Ice, which also used timelapse imagery to reveal another alarming symptom of climate change: rapidly melting glaciers.

The in-your-face visuals in both films make it impossible for viewers to ignore the problem.

“If you can document that change, you can reveal that to the public in a very powerful way,” Orlowski says to the camera.

I never thought I would feel moved to tears by watching the demise of coral polyps, but this film’s heartfelt approach to explaining science surprised me.

Orlowski and his team take us on an emotional journey. We follow a motley crew of characters in a race against the clock to install underwater timelapse cameras on threatened reefs in farflung places like Hawaii and Australia, in an attempt to capture the urgency of coral bleaching.

As Orlowski says during the post-screening discussion at LACMA, this is not a climate change film; it’s an “adventure story.”

The crew, dedicated to the point of obsession, captures mesmerizing images of sophisticated and colorful underwater animals that take the shape of rocks, plates, flower bunches and tentacles — some of which can be seen from space. Frame by frame, we watch these vibrant structures decay into nothing but underwater skeletons of their former selves.

The footage is at once beautiful and devastating.

Underwater images via Chasing Coral

Caring about coral

In addition to showing coral’s quick and brutal death, the film spends a lot of time educating viewers on the importance of healthy coral, too.

A few reasons why we should care about the health of our reefs, according to the film:

  • 25% of all marine life relies on coral reefs.
  • Up to a billion people rely on coral reefs for their livelihood.
  • Certain medicines, including some cancer treatments, are sourced from the sea.
  • Coral reefs produce breakwaters that protect our lands from dangerous surges.

Unfortunately, our reefs are under siege by global warming. Imagine the ocean enduring a rapidly spiking fever, as a result of absorbing 93% of the heat trapped in the atmosphere.

With these rising temperatures, we’ve lost as much as 80% of coral reefs in the Caribbean in recent years.

A whopping 29% of the Great Barrier Reef off the eastern coast of Australia died in 2016. When you compare that to other ecosystems, that’s the equivalent of losing most of the forest trees between Washington, D.C. and Maine, as we learn in the film.

Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski addresses the audience at LACMA after a screening

The story behind the science

“Scientists aren’t alarmists; the science is alarming,” Orlowski reminds the audience at the LACMA screening.

He describes himself as a translator and problem-solver, more than a filmmaker or storyteller, in service of scientists who need help sharing information and evidence.

“How do you make the pictures do justice for the science?” he asks. “How do you lure people in by something beautiful?”

The answers to these questions are obvious in the film. The story gives coral a voice, if you can imagine coral speaking — if not, whimpering — under the stress of our warming climate.

Orlowski offers a final disclaimer to the crowd: “I don’t consider myself an environmental activist, actually. I’m doing this for human civilization.”

Chasing Coral will launch a campaign later this year to #makewaves. Learn more on how to take action at chasingcoral.com.