Site icon Conservation news

Capturing the wonder and vulnerability of coral reefs in real-time: Q & A with the director of “Chasing Coral”

  • Coral reefs support 25% of marine life, as well as protecting human food supplies and shorelines, but they are vulnerable to stress, including warming ocean temperatures.
  • Over three years and 500 hours of underwater filming, a crew of divers, conservationists, and photographers sought to capture the lives of corals and the results of a global coral bleaching event in real time.
  • The new film, “Chasing Coral,” is a finalist for Best Impact Film in the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

Coral reefs support 25% of the world’s marine species, protect shorelines, support fisheries, and encourage eco-tourism—their global economic value is over US $30 billion per year.

A new film, “Chasing Coral,” documents the mass coral bleaching that occurred across the tropics between 2014 and 2016 and killed large portions of reefs.

The cameras follow a team of divers to help audiences visualize what happened to the corals and what is expected to happen in the coming years. The divers and photographers spent more than 500 hours filming underwater over three years, engaging reef conservationists in more than 30 countries, to capture healthy corals and the changes they experienced during the bleaching process, in real time.

The unseen underwater effects of rising ocean temperatures on coral, here in American-Samoa.
The unseen underwater effects of rising ocean temperatures on coral, here in American-Samoa. Photo credit: © XL Catlin Seaview Survey – The Ocean Agency – Richard Vevers

Coral reefs are iconic structures made of millions of coral polyps, tiny animals that eat passing microorganisms, reproduce in annual mass spawning events, and add their skeletons to the structure of the reef. Corals have algae living inside their tissues. Like most plants, these algae photosynthesize, converting the energy from sunlight to food, which helps sustain the coral. They also give the corals their color.

When the ocean’s waters become too warm, the algae can’t photosynthesize properly and either abandon or are expelled by the corals, causing the coral to turn white. Corals can survive a short-term bleaching event, but only if conditions improve and the algae recolonize the corals’ tissues. Higher ocean temperatures and bleaching are now more common, and bleaching events like those highlighted in the film are expected to become increasingly more frequent.

Chasing Coral is a finalist for Best Impact Film in the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival taking place next week in Jackson, Wyoming. Winners in 25 awards categories will be announced next Thursday, September 28.

In an email interview, Jeff Orlowski, the film’s director, shared his experience documenting the corals and the events he and the team witnessed.

Mongabay:   What inspired you to make a film about coral and climate change?

Orlowski:  We first heard about the coral bleaching phenomenon from Richard Vevers of The Ocean Agency when he sent our team an email after seeing Chasing Ice, explaining how coral reefs were bleaching white and dying on a massive global scale.

After we met with Richard, we knew very quickly this was a story that needed to be told. Coral reef ecosystems were changing at such a rapid pace  and warming ocean temperatures were (and still are) a huge factor accelerating the reef’s demise.

Mongabay:   What was a highlight in making this film?

Orlowski:  The Global Call was one of the most difficult and yet most rewarding parts of this project. We realized we couldn’t capture time lapses in all the reef regions of the world, and we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We needed help, and we called out to the divers and underwater photographers and scientists who know those reefs better than any outsider, and we asked for their help. Stacey Piculell, our Co-Producer, received hundreds of responses from people around the world wanting to show what was happening in their backyards. We were totally overwhelmed to see this community come together from our online call and we ended up using images and videos in Chasing Coral from over 30 countries.

Filming at Glovers Reef, Belize. Photo credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey – The Ocean Agency – Christophe Bailhache

Mongabay:   And what were some of the main challenges you faced, including developing and the 360-degree underwater cameras?

Orlowski:  Working in a marine environment had its challenges.  One of the biggest was dealing with expensive and complicated electronics. When our 360-degree cameras malfunctioned originally, we were forced to get creative and innovative in extremely remote situations. We had to be overly prepared for failure and willing to experiment.

The challenging nature of our production definitely made it a labor of love. Beyond the technical side of things, we spent 4-5 hours a day underwater — and that pushes you physically and mentally. We were at the edge of our limits, which was exhilarating in a way, but it definitely took a physical toll on us.

Director Jeff Orlowski filming on the Great Barrier Reef.
Director Jeff Orlowski uses creative technology to film on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: Richard Vevers © Chasing Coral

Mongabay:   What surprised you most about the coral reef systems you encountered?

Orlowski:  It was challenging to witness the coral reefs undergo such a massive transformation, literally right before our eyes. We gained a vivid understanding of what is happening in our oceans. Did you know that 90% of the heat trapped in our atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean? This was shocking to digest, but it really helped form the way we view how our changing ocean is incredibly impacted by the climate.

Mongabay:   What do you want people to take away from the film?

Orlowski:  That there’s so much hope and transformative energy ahead of us for each of us to truly make a difference in this current climate crisis. We’re in the process of launching a big impact campaign for the film with plans to take it all across the country and around the world. Our hope is that the film helps local communities transition to 100% clean energy, because we believe that this is where the most success for our environment will occur in the next several years.

Coral flourescing, a reaction to stressful conditions
Coral flourescing, a reaction to stressful conditions. Photo credit: Netflix

Mongabay:   What overall impact do you hope this film will have?

Orlowski:  We believe in the tremendous potential of the Chasing Coral story to awaken new audiences around local climate solutions. We’re at a special moment in history for climate action in the United States. With an exciting new surge of energy at the city and state level, this is the time to support local action.

Mongabay:   From your experience, what strategies might help reduce the stress on corals from climate change and other activities?

Orlowski:  We’ve crafted an Action Guide located on our website which provides ideas and additional resources for saving our reefs — including individual prompts, for example, like using sunscreens without oxybenzone, a chemical shown to damage coral reefs. We also believe that the best thing we can do for coral reefs and other ecosystems in danger from climate change is to collectively focus our efforts on moving communities closer to being powered with 100% clean energy and supporting coral reef preservation like our friends at 50 Reefs are doing.

Coral reefs may only cover 1% of the ocean floor but they house over 25% of all marine life found in the ocean, affecting millions of people that rely on reefs for protection and as a source of food. We must act now in major ways to protect coral reefs and other ecosystems under threat from our changing climate.

Mongabay:   What’s next for you?

Orlowski:  By revealing what’s happening under the waves our goal with Chasing Coral is to build bridges to new communities that move them closer to 100% clean energy.

As filmmakers, we’re always interested in seeing what other kind of stories are out there that haven’t been told. We’re immensely dedicated to crafting powerful stories that help shape our understanding of the world.

Trevally schooling at Lady Elliot Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Trevally schooling at Lady Elliot Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo credit: The Ocean Agency-XLCatlin Seaview Survey-Christophe Bailhache
Exit mobile version