If you’ve not yet seen the award-winning documentary Chasing Coral, I urge you to watch it as soon as you can. It is a powerful illustration of what we are doing to the planet and why we need to wake up and act. It is inspiring, illuminating and even funny in places.
Coral reefs sustain a quarter of all marine life and directly support the livelihoods of more than half a billion people. They are a source of medicines, such as cancer drug prostaglandin. And they protect coastal communities from storms because the skeletons they form create a living breakwater that constantly grows and rebuilds itself.
But corals are in big trouble. The biggest threat they face come from global warming. That’s because the oceans absorb most of the heat our greenhouse gas emissions are trapping in the atmosphere. As the seas warm, the corals eject the tiny plant cells that live within their tissues. Without the plant cells, the corals turn white — they ‘bleach’ — and then they die.
Chasing Coral follows a team on a quest to record the first ever footage of this process unfolding in real time. There’s a poignant moment in the film when team member Zack Rago is scuba diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He turns to the camera to show a note he has written with his underwater pen. It reads: “This is the hardest dive I’ve ever had to do.”
Rago, a self-identifying ‘coral nerd’, was stung by the effect of going into the sea each day for a month and seeing corals die from one day to the next, of seeing “flesh, living tissue, rotting away”. He was filming in 2016, the year in which 29 percent of the corals on the reef died. The following year another 22 percent perished.
Coral bleaching is now a worldwide phenomenon. At current rates of global warming, all of the world’s corals will be gone in 30 years, or as Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, puts it: “In our lifetime, on our watch”.
The film also follows Rago as he meets his childhood hero, Australian coral expert John ‘Charlie’ Veron, who has been diving on the Great Barrier Reef for 45 years. Veron tells Rago to never quit raising awareness of the threats to corals. “You have to keep at it,” he says. “Otherwise you’re not going to like yourself when you’re an old man. You’re going to like yourself much more if you can say, well, I sure tried to turn that around.”
I feel the same. I’ve been talking and writing about the damage we are doing to the planet for a long time now and I’m not going to stop. But sometimes it feels like nobody is listening, that everyone thinks someone else is going to solve these problems for them.
After the screening of Chasing Coral I saw yesterday, host Anjani Ganase of Wild Tobago and the Global Change Institute pointed out that people often ask what individuals can to do change anything. That’s the wrong way of thinking about it, she said. It is when we are vocal, when we come together that we can build a better future. “There’s no individual in this game,” she said. We are all in this together.
Photo credit: Daviddarom / Wikimedia Commons