Chasing Coral, the documentary on coral reefs that makes us all feel involved

Chasing Coral is a Netflix documentary on coral reefs. Over the past 30 years half the world’s corals have gone forever, but the hope of saving these extraordinary animals is still alive. This is why everyone should watch it.

Without revealing any spoilers, there are two key moments that leave a mark while watching Chasing Coral. One is when we figure out that corals aren’t just living beings, but animals that are extremely complex in their outer simplicity – and beauty. A coral, in fact, is an animal made up of other animals. “A coral individual is made up of thousands of small structures called polyps,” explains biologist Ruth Gates in the documentary. “Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles that can combine to be millions of them across a single animal”.

The other is the direct consequence of this. The documentary reveals the crucial role corals play for the health of marine ecosystems and, indirectly, for that of the Planet, thanks to a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding environment. Just like forests for mainland.

What is symbiosis in corals

“For me, the most interesting thing in nature is symbiosis: two separate organisms that have adapted to each other and are now benefitting each other, working together,” tells Zack Rago, a passionate of corals and protagonist of the documentary. “The first thing that comes to my mind is an anemone and a clownfish. The anemone provides protection for the clownfish, and the clownfish usually provides food for the anemone. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. In the case of a coral, it goes deeper than that. The symbiont itself is incorporated in the organism. The coral doesn’t exist without these little tiny plant cells. They are completely reliant on each other, and you don’t have one without the other. That relationship between the two of them is the most interesting thing in the world to me”.

We feel involved from minute one

It is thanks to these discoveries that the documentary, directed by Jeff Orlowski and filmed over three years for a total of more than 500 hours underwater, takes a surprising turn. Starting from being a traditional information work, it turns into a drama that makes us identifying with corals and takes us into the world they live in: the Australian Great Barrier Reef. It’s a drama because the passionate protagonists become direct testimonies of the “fever” and then the death of a myriad of corals all over the world. Thanks to advanced technologies they document for the first time ever the third global bleaching occurred in 2015 (the first took place between 1997 and 1998 and the second in 2010). The third bleaching occurred only five years after the second. This means that half the world’s corals died over just 30 years.

Why corals turn white

Coral bleaching is one of the consequences of global warming, i.e. the rise in the global temperatures of both air and oceans caused by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide, CO2) released into the atmosphere by human-related activities such as the burning of petroleum and coal. According to the documentary, 93 per cent the heat released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean. Without our oceans, we’ll be doomed. Indeed, we would be already experiencing a temperature of 50 degrees, rather than talking about a 3-degree increase in the average temperature by the end of the century.

Corals in the American Samoa© XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency/Richard Vevers
Corals in the American Samoa© XL Catlin Seaview Survey/The Ocean Agency/Richard Vevers

And the first proofs of warming oceans and ocean acidification are coral bleaching and the death of corals. Corals turn white because they get sick. And their reaction to this “fever” is turning white, almost fluorescent, like they’re signalling their state of health. When they’re white, they’re still alive and waiting for someone to save them. One of the first researchers on the issue was Australian Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. In Chasing Coral, he tells of when he was almost derided in the 1990’s for his publications theorising that coral bleaching is one of the most evident signals of climate change and global warming.

After discouragement comes hope

After discouraging yet emotional moments, the documentary ends with a call of hope. It asks viewers to continue researching and keeping up on the issue, beyond the half-an-hour documentary. For example, we could support a screening of Chasing Coral in our city, spreading awareness through social networks. The website chasingcoral.com provides all the steps needed to reduce the impact of our lives and communities, like supporting the use of renewable energy – which is one of the most useful and easy instruments to curb climate change. Also, the website provides information about the best practice to follow when we go to a marine environment and do activities like swimming, diving or sailing.

Each and every of us can become an advocate of corals by urging local and national institutions to act to cut CO2 emissions through energy efficiency and a rapid shift to clean energy. For all these reasons and for the emotions it gives, Chasing Coral is a universal unmissable documentary. Not only for those who have the destiny of future generations and animal and plant species close to their heart, but also for everyone who cares about the future of the Earth, the one and only we have.

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