Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral is environmental filmmaker Jeff Orlowski’s sort-of sequel to his 2012 documentary about melting glaciers, Chasing Ice. Both films attempt to demonstrate, unequivocally, the effects of climate change on our planet’s ecosystems. Both are beautiful, heartbreaking films.

Chasing Coral follows a team of researchers as they try to take time-lapse photographs of coal life cycles around the world. According to the scientists we meet throughout the film, out oceans are warming at an alarming rate. This warming causes the coral to “bleach,” a process by which they expel the plant life from their bodies, causing their skin to become translucent, and the coral’s skeleton to show through. Once colorful fields of coal turn shockingly white. Coral can recover from this condition—areas of the ocean do change temperature for brief periods due to weather patterns—but they can only recover if the average temperature of their environment returns to manageable levels. Imagine you get a fever, the film explains. You can survive with a hundred degree body temperature for a brief period of time, but you will die if the condition continues unabated.

To photograph the coral’s changing condition, the scientists have to build special underwater cameras capable of staying under water for long periods of time, fully powered, and protected from the natural accumulation of algae and other ocean life. To do this, the scientists invent a new kind of camera rig that includes a kind of wrap-around windshield wiper that regularly cleans the camera’s housing. This brief segment of the film is the kind of thing you’d normally see in a special feature on your dvd or blu ray. Including it in the main feature gives extra scope to the scientists’ work. Simply figuring out a way to gather the information they need if they hope to convince people of the need to react to this crisis is an adventure all its own.

And then the camera’s aren’t as useful as they hope, so they are forced to spend months camping on  beaches and diving every day to take pictures of the same clumps of coral to make their film. Their dedication shines through, and they end up capturing more remarkable coral phenomena than they anticipated capturing. (You’ll have to watch the film to see what I’m talking about.)

The documentary is, of course, beautiful to look at all on its own regardless of the science. The ocean is an astounding place, and coral is among the ocean’s most beautiful creatures. Coral spread like living color across the shallow ocean floor, building great cities of biodiversity where fish and plants of all kinds flourish. This film would be fun to watch even with the sound off if just to see the beauty of the reefs.

Of course, this is a film about dying coral though, so the film becomes very sad as we watch the coral bleach and die. We have also gotten to know the scientists themselves by this time, so we grieve with them and for them as the place they love so much begins to wither away. Chasing Coral is compelling. It makes you want to do whatever you can to steward this planet better, as God called us to do.

One final note – the film’s credits include images of a newborn turtle crawling across a beach for the ocean. It’s a simple sequence of events, but it is also strangely affecting. Chasing Coral means it as a metaphor for the challenge ahead for the next generation. The metaphor works, and it gives me hope. In the words of another cautioning scientist, “Life finds a way.”

This review was originally published during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2017. – editor