Coral reefs are in crisis, dying at an alarming rate worldwide. Since 1975, 80-90% of the reefs in the Florida Keys have lost their living coral (NOAA.org). Overall, around 25% of corals on Earth have disappeared and the speed of degradation has dangerously accelerated over the past decade. Marine biologists predict that if deterioration continues at this rate, there will be no active coral to study by the year 2050. If these estimations are correct, within our lifetime we may witness the expiration of some of the most integral members of Earth’s ecology.
Netflix’s original documentary, “Chasing Coral,” highlights the rapid decline of the world’s coral and the cause of the bleaching events leading to its demise. Jeff Orlowski, the film’s director, Richard Vevers, the founder of the Ocean Agency and a crew of passionate scientists, divers, and photographers spent over four months documenting life in and around the Great Barrier Reef to highlight the impact of climate change on coral reefs. As the film points out, prior to “Chasing Coral” much of this devastating loss has been overlooked by the media, largely because people view the ocean as out of sight, out of mind. Vevers, an ex-advertising executive, views this ignorance as an issue with the way the ocean is advertised and hopes that this documentary brings mainstream attention and interest to the travesties happening beneath the ocean’s surface.
Coral: A Quiet Sophistication
Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are the greatest expression of ocean life and the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. A single reef can house over one million animal and plant species and include up to 1000 different species of corals. Among the 1000 species of reef-building coral, one will find a multitude of varying sizes, shapes, and textures. Some coral species look like large underwater rocks, while others uphold intricate branching patterns that give them the appearance of a delicate fan.
In the film, Dr. Ruth Gates, Coral Reef Biologist at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology, describes that coral is an animal made up of thousands of small structures called polyps. Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles. The inside of the coral is filled with microalgae (small plants) that use photosynthesis to produce food for the animal during the daytime. At night, the corals come alive and the animal extends its tentacles, catching whatever passes by it. For the intricately connected coral animal and the plants living within, symbiosis is extreme. Without the microalgae, corals are at risk of starvation.
Coral bleaching is a stress response (like a fever in humans) to warming waters. As the temperature on land escalates, the ocean helps absorb some of that increase. According to recent studies, the ocean has absorbed 93% of the warming created by humans since the 1970’s (IUCN report 2016). When water temperatures spikes above normal range, corals undergo bleaching— a process in which the inside tissues of stressed corals have an impaired ability to photosynthesis and feed the animals. To preserve their polyp and skeletal structure, the animals get rid of plants that are no longer functional and leave behind naked tissues. These bright-white skeletal structures are a far cry from the brilliant corals found in a healthy reef.
During a bleaching event, large swaths of coral reef whiten over the course of a few short weeks. Bleaching itself does not kill the coral. The bright-white pigment pictured below shows the skeleton of a coral that is still alive but without nutrients. In losing their internal food systems, corals begin to starve. As the coral dies, its surface becomes covered in fuzzy micro algae and the aquatic life surrounding the coral must find refuge elsewhere.
Both shallow (between 3 and 150 feet) and deep (up to 450 feet deep) reefs can be found in nearly every corner of the world. Presently, two-thirds of them are endangered.
A Shift In Thinking
Currently, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on our planet, and in 2016, 29% of it was lost. “Chasing Coral” has drawn the attention of the masses, so there’s no doubt that many will flock to the remaining reefs to catch the last glimpse of their beauty before their predicted eradication. But according to the film, losing the Great Barrier Reef has actually got to mean something. We cannot just let it die so that it becomes photos in an old textbook—it has got to be a wake-up call. After watching “Chasing Coral” and pouring through research, I began to wonder what it would look like if humans viewed the reefs as vital parts of the Earth’s ecosystem rather than as tourist attractions that are marketed to stimulate local economies. What would it mean if each visitor was forced to study the delicate ecosystem in which they are visitors? Would a transition from voyeur to citizen scientist generate enough conversation for people to realize the detrimental ripple effect that consumption, pollution, waste, and exploitation has on our environment? One can only hope.