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‘Chasing Coral’ documents destruction of coral reefs

July 2, 2017 at 4:05 PM EDT
In the new documentary “Chasing Coral,” a team of photographers, divers and scientists analyze more than 650 hours of underwater footage to illustrate the real-time effects warming seas. The film will premiere on Netflix on July 14. NewsHour Weekend’s Saskia De Melker talks to Jeff Orlowski, the director of the film, about the challenges of showing these rarely-seen effects of climate change.

By Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman

SASKIA DE MELKER: The documentary “Chasing Coral” tells the story of a three-year effort to capture the loss of the world’s coral reefs through time-lapse, underwater photography.

The film focuses on the process called coral bleaching. When ocean water becomes too warm, corals become stressed and expel the algae living in their tissue causing the coral to turn completely white.

“The coral bleaches, and what you’re seeing is the skeleton underneath.”

Coral bleaching is happening more often as climate change raises the temperature of oceans, which have absorbed more than 90 percent of the heat created by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

One area the film focuses on is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where the average ocean water temperature has warmed by about 1.2 degrees fahrenheit over the last century.

Jeff Orlowski directed “Chasing Coral”.

JEFF ORLOWSKI: Coral reefs are the backbone for the entire ocean. They are the nursery for the ocean. About a quarter of all marine life in the ocean spends part of its lifecycle on a coral reef. And there are about a billion or so people that depend on coral reefs for fish for their food, for protein.

A team of divers, photographers, and scientists logged 650 hours underwater in 30 countries to make “Chasing Coral”. Orlowski says the challenge was gathering multiple images a day in the same places for months to show changes to the reef in real time.

JEFF ORLOWSKI: From the beginning, we knew that if we could figure out a way to do time lapse of this change happening in the ocean, that it would be the most powerful visual that we could create. There’s something about creating evidence. When you look at a piece of ice calving or you look at a wildfire burning, because that’s part of this normal cycle, it doesn’t register in the same way as when you can document the change over time

SASKIA DE MELKER: Why did you specifically focus on the event of coral bleaching?

JEFF ORLOWSKI: The really valuable thing about documenting coral bleaching is that it is this straight, very direct visual indicator of how hot the oceans are getting. If the temperature of the water passes a certain threshold, the corals turn white. It’s that simple. There’s nothing natural about the cycle that’s going on right now. In 2016, we lost 29 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. So 29 percent of the Great Barrier Reef died in a single year, because the water was hot.

SASKIA DE MELKER: The film shows how Richard Vevers, a former advertising executive turned ocean activist, was inspired to document coral bleaching, which corals can recover from, but can also often lead corals to die.

RICHARD VEVERS: I was truly shocked by what I saw. The reef was white as far as the eye could see. To be honest, I didn’t have the knowledge to know how to process it. Was this dead? Was it alive? This is Airport Reef. So this is in December. And this is it now.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Is there something about coral bleaching though that is a little bit counterintuitive, because it doesn’t look like dying?

JEFF ORLOWSKI: There’s a huge challenge around coral bleaching specifically, because when most people think about coral, they think about the beautiful, white sculpture sitting on their mantle. And it looks so pristine and clean and beautiful. It’s not supposed to look like that when it’s in the ocean. It has color, it has animal flesh living on it, it has plants living inside of that. They look very, very different when they’re healthy in the ocean than they do when they’re sitting in somebody’s home.

SASKIA DE MELKER: The film documents a lot of the challenges that you have in getting those images. How did you approach taking these underwater images?

JEFF ORLOWSKI: We had to align the cameras manually every day. You get the camera positioned in the right spot, panning in the right way. I actually had underwater lasers zip-tied to the camera system. Literally the ground that you’re putting the camera on is changing every day. So to get the camera in the same exact spot in this three-dimensional space was really, really challenging. We would let it roll for a couple minutes, then pick all the equipment up, go to another site and do it again.

SASKIA DE MELKER: This isn’t Orlowski’s first film documenting climate change. His 2012 film “Chasing Ice” chronicled the melting of the world’s glaciers and won an Emmy for outstanding nature programming.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Was it more difficult to chase ice and document what’s happening in the glaciers or to chase the corals and document what’s happening in the oceans?

JEFF ORLOWSKI: Working in the Arctic is definitely colder, but not necessarily harder. There were different challenges. And in many ways, Chasing Coral was even more of a struggle for me personally. And more of a struggle to capture. Glaciers right now are changing very consistently. The interesting thing that we realized with Chasing Coral was that the corals reefs. They can go from living to dead in two months. And if you’re not there at the right time to capture that before and after, you just show up and it’s a dead reef. So it was a challenge to be at the right place at the right time.

SASKIA DE MELKER: This isn’t a political film, but it’s coming out in a time when climate change is highly politicized. What’s that challenge in terms of making people aware of this but not getting sucked into that debate?

JEFF ORLOWSKI: I think it is massively unfortunate for human civilization that this issue has become politicized. And what I’m trying to work on and what our team is trying to work on is how do we depoliticize it. We need to get to a place where everybody just acknowledges, okay, there are challenges, and we know there are solutions, and let’s talk about what those solutions are. Denying the problem just prolongs the problem.