Review: Chasing Coral

In the last 30 years, 50% of the world’s corals have been lost, and we are likely to lose the remainder within the next 30 years. Chasing Coral documents a group’s project to record time lapses of coral bleaching events, in order to awaken the public’s attention to the effects of global warming in our oceans. It is a ninety-minute whirlwind of beautiful visuals, comic episodes, and most importantly, a stark relation of the catastrophic impact our actions have had upon corals.

The documentary deals closely with the topic as an “advertising issue”. The creators found that to many people coral reef damage is simply “out of sight, out of mind”. People aren’t faced with bleached coral in their everyday lives, and even when images are shown to us, we often don’t understand what we are seeing. A couple of moments within the documentary illustrated this complication vividly. During the coral bleaching event of 2016, areas of the Great Barrier Reef around New Caledonia were fluorescing; as a reaction to the warmer waters, the corals were producing a chemical sunscreen to protect themselves from the heat extremities. Richard Vevers described this glowing state as an “incredibly beautiful phase of death”, as if the corals were saying “look at me. Please notice”. In this state, the corals are so vividly beautiful in a way that conceals their oncoming decay but pleads for attention the only way they can. The team were diving from a floating restaurant for this portion of their research and the people there were oblivious to the natural phenomenon taking place beneath them. Even when presented with a coral phenomenon, we seem to still misunderstand or ignore the issue at stake.

Throughout the documentary I noticed efforts which it made to relate coral reefs to us. A striking analogy was made between the coral reefs and a city: the corals too are overcrowded, they support communities, there’s even traffic with certain movements throughout the day. To further the link between corals and us, the documentary highlighted that up to a billion people depend upon fish stocks from corals, as well as the cancer fighting properties some species bear. To me, these comparisons seemed problematic. Consumerism has for the most part fuelled global warming, and I think the displacement of the focus from the environmental issues to ourselves created tensions within the documentary. Whilst it may be attempting to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, I think that the need to relate environmental issues to us, to promote further exploitation, and equate saving the coral reefs to a sort of self-salvation dilutes the documentary’s strengths.

The closing shot dedicates the film “to all the young people who can and will make a difference”. Whilst I definitely agree that the mobilisation of youth holds a lot of potential for change, I still take issue with this statement. The documentary seems to build to an impactful climax that clearly conveys coral reef damage through images gathered during the project. Yet, it moves past this point and shows the creators’ optimism and ongoing projects that hope you engage and maintain children’s interest in the oceans. Whilst involving young people looks to secure a better future for the planet, corals are deteriorating on a yearly basis. At this stage, the issue demands governmental action immediately as well as efforts to eliminate the perpetuation of this issue, and other issues, in years to come. The documentary crucially asks, “if we can’t save this ecosystem, are we going to have the courage to save the next ecosystem down the line?”

The film suggests that the loss of the Great Barrier Reef can catalyse change. Whilst optimism does have a place in activism, I think that there needs to be a degree of boldness and accountability in our actions now. The documentary powerfully communicated the issues our oceans face, and I think that displacing seriousness with positivity just further perpetuates our need to self-gratify. Whilst being environmentally conscious creates tensions with certain aspects of the lifestyles we know, urgency and optimism need to be balanced in a way that can effect positive change.

-Caitlin Britt

Chasing Coral is available on Netflix to watch now.


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