Chas­ing Co­ral pro­vides an ur­gent and dire warn­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - KEN­NETH TURAN

While govern­ments and politi­cians dither about global warm­ing, the world’s un­der­sea co­ral is mov­ing to­ward a dev­as­tat­ing death. If you don’t be­lieve that, or don’t think it re­ally mat­ters, “Chas­ing Co­ral” on Net­flix presents the ev­i­dence with beauty, in­tel­li­gence and a sur­pris­ing amount of emo­tion.

One of the things that makes this such an in­volv­ing doc­u­men­tary, the win­ner of Sun­dance’s doc­u­men­tary au­di­ence award, is that its cast of key char­ac­ters is not the usual roundup of con­cerned sci­en­tists, though they are out in force.

Di­rec­tor Jeff Or­lowski rather spends a good bit of time with Zack Rago, a young cam­era tech­ni­cian who’s a self-de­scribed “co­ral nerd,” and for­mer Bri­tish ad ex­ec­u­tive Richard Vev­ers, who changed his life to ad­vo­cate for the world’s oceans.

These peo­ple not only care pas­sion­ately, they turn out to be key play­ers in an am­bi­tious project to doc­u­ment the as­ton­ish­ing fact that about 50 per cent of the world’s corals, an es­sen­tial part of the earth’s ecosys­tem, have died in the last 30 years.

Vev­ers, in fact, brought di­rec­tor Or­lowski onto the project af­ter see­ing his 2012 doc “Chas­ing Ice,” which told a sim­i­lar story about the dis­ap­pear­ance of Arc­tic glaciers.

Vev­ers’ ar­tic­u­late pas­sion and per­sua­sive man­ner make him the ideal spokesper­son for the project, and he sets the tone with an open­ing quote that notes that while “most peo­ple stare up into space with won­der, we have this al­most alien world on our planet, just teem­ing with life.”

Vev­ers’ first project was some­thing called the XL Catlin Seav­iew Sur­vey, an at­tempt to use still cam­eras to doc­u­ment what goes on on the ocean floor.

Af­ter first notic­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of one of his favourite crea­tures, the weedy sea dragon, Vev­ers be­gan not­ing that the world’s vi­brantly coloured co­ral, un­der­sea an­i­mals though they re­sem­ble plants, were first bleach­ing white and then dy­ing en masse.

The cul­prit, as in all too many eco­log­i­cal crises, is global warm­ing, as oceans have heated up some two de­grees and become more acidic as a re­sult.

Once Vev­ers fo­cuses on this, he con­nects with co­ral ex­perts like Ruth Gates of the Hawaii In­sti­tute of Marine Bi­ol­ogy, who helps him (and us) un­der­stand how co­ral as an or­gan­ism is “so­phis­ti­cated in a quiet way.”

And once he dis­cov­ers that a mass global bleach­ing event is im­mi­nent, Vev­ers de­cides that the best ser­vice he can pro­vide the un­der­sea uni­verse is to pho­to­graph the bleach­ing as it hap­pens in or­der to alert the world about the cri­sis.

It’s at this point that Vev­ers and Or­lowski cross paths with Rago, who is so into co­ral he keeps fish­less tanks filled with them at home and who idol­izes John (Char­lie) Ver­non, the fa­ther of reef science.

Though pho­tograph­ing un­der­sea co­ral seems fairly straight­for­ward, it proves to be con­sid­er­ably harder than it sounds, and a good part of “Chas­ing Co­ral” un­spools like an ad­ven­ture story as our in­trepid group runs into a se­ries of ob­sta­cles.

Af­ter go­ing to con­sid­er­able trou­ble, for in­stance, to cre­ate un­der­sea au­to­mated time lapse cam­eras, it was dis­cov­ered that they were mal­func­tion­ing and not tak­ing use­ful pic­tures.

With the dam­age-caus­ing warm cur­rents shift­ing and the clock tick­ing on this bleach­ing event, the team makes the last-minute de­ci­sion to move to an­other lo­ca­tion and do the un­der­sea shoot­ing man­u­ally ev­ery day for 40 con­sec­u­tive days.

Whether warn­ing the world this way will mat­ter, “Chas­ing Co­ral” is in no po­si­tion to pre­dict. There is some op­ti­mistic talk about “young peo­ple who can and will make a dif­fer­ence” and sweet shots of a de­ter­mined baby tur­tle, but, ob­vi­ously, no one knows.

One thing, how­ever, is cer­tain. We have been warned.


“Chas­ing Co­ral” is an emo­tional doc­u­men­tary about the state of our world’s oceans.

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