A beautiful but disturbing Netflix documentary reveals how a group of marine biologists and camera designers embarked on a turbulent journey to expose one of the most dangerous ecological catastrophes of our time: the pandemic bleaching of corals.
We barely notice rising heat caused by the emission of greenhouse gases because it is absorbed by oceans. We are barely aware that corals are turning skeletal white—and dying—because they are under the sea.
Chasing Coral, the latest film from Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski, should act as a wake-up call. Tragically, 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016, and this morbidity is exponential. If nothing is done to halt the warming of oceans, the eradication of the coral ecosystem will terminate 25 percent of all marine life on the planet. It will also jeopardize the estimated one billion people partially dependent on corals.
In Chasing Coral, Orlowski documents how former advertising agent Richard Vevers, self-described “coral nerd” Zackery Rago, underwater camera engineer Trevor Mendelow, and other marine experts strive to track the killing of the world’s corals, while attempting to transform public perceptions of them as animal life.
Because healthy corals are psychedelically dazzling, Orlowski’s film about their decimation is one of the most aesthetically complex yet to appear on Netflix. Orlowski and Rago talked to Culture Trip about their intentions.
Culture Trip: Chasing Coral is an emotionally charged documentary. The realization that coral is an animal makes us feel as empathetic toward it, as if you’d anthropomorphized it.
Zackery Rago: I definitely think that a big part of it is humanizing corals. That’s why people begin to get emotional. Corals feed just like people and other animals do, and they fight with each other like many species do.
It’s pretty common for people to think corals are rocks or plants. For instance, when I worked with aquariums, almost every day someone would ask me about “the plants.” I would always correct them and say: “Oh, no, they’re animals.”
Through things like Finding Nemo and, obviously, our film, people are becoming more knowledgeable about coral reefs and their functionality and role in the ocean.
In Chasing Coral, we used characteristics that we associate with animal life and showed people that corals are doing the same things as animals in their own unique way. That definitely tells people: “Hey, this is not a plant or a rock! These are real animals that are extremely important for their ecosystem.”
Jeff Orlowski: When we were making the film, the goal wasn’t to try to anthropomorphize corals. The goal was to try to understand why people like Zack and Richard [Vevers] love these things so much. “Why do people care about them? Why should I care about them?” In that process, I feel our whole team learned why corals are so magical and what is so amazing about them. It’s a communication problem first and foremost. This is a story that’s happening out of sight and out of mind.
CT: When did you first fall in love with coral, Zack?
ZR: I was definitely a total nerd kid growing up in Colorado catching frogs and snakes. I thought it was the coolest thing ever to capture things and find out what they were. When I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Hawaii, I was introduced to a new world to explore. I fell in love with the ocean as a whole, and then, as I got into my high school years, I would spend all my spare hours taking care of corals and observing them in aquariums.
I realized how complex corals are and how otherworldly they are in comparison to other life forms on the planet. They’re outliers of the animal kingdom—they’re just so weird that it’s hard not to be fascinated with how they work.
CT: When you’re confronted by corals that used to be alive and beautiful and are now dying or completely dead, how do you reconcile yourself to that?
ZR: It’s hard. On a personal level, there are some days when I’m really upset and I don’t want to do this because I’m watching something that I really enjoy die. You get frustrated, and there are certainly moments when you want to step away. That being said, we know that this is going on, and we have the opportunity to capture it and share the story to the public in a really powerful way.
While Jeff are I are out there taking these photos and watching this beautiful ecosystem perish, what we are doing is much bigger than our personal frustrations. There’s a fine line between the frustration you’re willing to put up with from a personal level and the bigger goals that are much more meaningful than any personal gripe you have. These things need to be seen by the rest of the world. People need to understand what’s happening.
JO: There’s a part of this job that sucks. I wanted to get into environmental photography as a means to see the world and go on adventures. Now it’s shifted into this burden of knowing how much the planet is changing and how fast it’s deteriorating. The motivating force was knowing that, at the end of the day, collecting the imagery and capturing the story was the most important thing we could do. It was this greater guiding principle that made myself, Zach and the whole team willing to put up with the exhaustion and the drain.
There was also the knowledge that we were the only team doing this work, and if we didn’t do it, nobody else would. Zach and I spent four months living on the Great Barrier Reef last year. It was supposed to be a two-month trip, but it kept getting extended. It is fascinating to think that the most important thing in the world we could possibly do was to go scuba diving everyday. It sounds luxurious, but the film took a year longer to make than we thought it would because we weren’t satisfied with the imagery we got. We had to keep trying.
CT: Did you re-create any of the scenes when you were reacting to the malfunctioning equipment?
JO: No, those were all immediate reactions. We don’t do re-creation because, Zach, I love you… but you’re not an actor! There were one or two people on the trip who would try to set things up in certain ways at times, but it didn’t feel right. I cut that off as quickly as possible. If Zach and I have already had a conversation that we want to film, we just bring somebody else in and have Zach explain it to that other person.
Filmmaking is hard in general, but it’s particularly hard to follow a story happening in real time. We want the audience to make the same discoveries that our team made. The hope was to tap into a deeper emotional truth and communicate it through the film.
CT: Chasing Coral has a similar structure to Chasing Ice [which documents James Balog’s struggle to record, via time-lapse photography, the disappearance of ice mountains in the Arctic]. Both films reveal that, before these recording expeditions, no one had developed technology that could withstand environmental extremes and document gradual change. Do you think this reflects a common inability to comprehend the slowness of climate change?
JO: Well, nature operates on a different timescale to humans. We looked at the world beyond a human-based timeframe. One of the powerful things about cinematography is that, through different photographic techniques, you can manipulate time. The two ways to manipulate time is through slow motion and time-lapse, and Chasing Coral is loaded with both of them.
There’s a very interesting thing I experienced: when you shoot underwater in real time and watch it in playback, it feels too frenetic. When you’re underwater, your heart and metabolism slow, even when just your face is submerged in water. There’s varying science on this.
We tried to accentuate that with the footage, so most of the underwater footage is in slow motion. The planet is changing dramatically right now in places the public doesn’t usually see. What we try to figure out is how to convey this intangible story and make it accessible in a human timeframe. How do you get away from charts and graphs and the intellectual concept of climate change to show people what is actually happening?
CT: A pivotal moment in the film comes when J.E.N. “Charlie” Veron, one of the greatest authorities on coral, says to Zack: “You’re not going to like yourself if you don’t keep trying to influence people.”
JO: I’m with you. That’s one of the moments that gets me the most choked up. One of the cool things about Charlie is that when he was hired to become the first scientist studying the Great Barrier Reef, he didn’t have a degree in coral and wasn’t a coral expert. He was just the only person who applied for the position. You don’t need a fancy degree to go down a certain path. The Charlie story is pretty awesome.
ZR: There is no other person alive on the planet today that has seen more coral—and therefore more degradation of coral—than Charlie. I had that conversation with him, but he was really talking to everyone who’s living right now. What hit me the most was when he said to me: “I’m glad I’m not your age.” That was one of the most powerful sentences that has ever been said to me.
We all inherently care about these issues. We want to say, “We tried—we stood up for what we believe in.” It comes down to sucking it up, and saying: “Look, I’m going to do something.” It doesn’t have to be going out to save the world.
CT: How can the average citizen combat climate change?
JO: The world is screwed if we sit back and don’t do anything about it. The status quo puts us on a bad path, but we still have time to change course. The frustrating thing is that we already have the technology, and we already know what we need to be doing and how to do it. We’re just not embracing it as fast as we need to. We need a big shift in mindset, and that’s what this film is trying to expedite.
ZR: I’m sitting in my office right now and I have printed out a note that [British primatologist and anthropologist] Jane Goodall sent Jeff and me in January. I look at it every day. It says: “We must collectively deal with climate change. It is almost too late, but let us remember that each of us can make a difference every day.”
It comes down to how we think about the world and how we see ourselves. It’s much more exciting and fun to take an active direction—like why not? Even if you fail, you tried. It’s only a matter of time before people start to figure out that: “Hey, this is something that we actually have to participate in.” Our goal is to make that participation fun.
JO: In the U.S., we’re going through this unstoppable change with a new economy and a new way of powering the nation, and there is so much opportunity for people to work in clean energy or do environmental work. There are even fortunes to be made in it. This work will soon be at the cutting edge of technology and economic growth.
Even though President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the country is on track to stick with it due to individual states and cities coming together. There’s almost been a positive shift since Trump pulled out of Paris.
But it was the quintessential sign that our government isn’t going to protect us, so we need to do it ourselves. We’re going to lose the majority of coral. We’re going to lose a lot of ecosystems. There is still a lot of devastation yet to come. But we will preserve these ecosystems if we choose to.
Climate change is not a future problem—it’s a current problem that has scary future implications. We can talk about all the real optimism, but it’s based on the notion that people are going to take action. But I am very optimistic that we will solve this. It’s just a matter of when.