Coral reefs are among the most diverse and important ecosystems on the planet—and they are dying before our very eyes. To uncover why, Chasing Coral director Jeff Orlowski and a team of scientists and divers embarked on a three-year adventure to capture 500+ hours of underwater footage from reefs around the globe.
In timelapses, the team documented how rising ocean temperatures cause mass bleaching of coral. Watch the results seen in the powerful new documentary Chasing Coral available on Netflix.
Healthy coral reefs support a quarter of all marine life, feed a billion people, generate $36 billion in revenue and millions of tourism jobs, and protect our coastlines from tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods. “We live at a unique moment in time where we can change history,” says Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who brought his expertise in climate change and coral reefs to the film. “It’s not too late for coral reefs.” Learn what you can do to help at chasingcoral.com.
Why should the average person care that coral reefs are bleaching and dying?
Jeff: This film is about more than just coral. The point is that coral reefs are an indicator of huge changes that we’re doing to the planet. It’s something that we saw with fissures, something that we’re seeing with coral reefs, coconut groves, and a number of different ecosystems. We are fundamentally changing ecosystems on this planet—and that’s huge and kind of shocking. We’re hoping to use coral as that way to get people to recognize this. What does it mean when you lose an entire coral reef ecosystem? What does it mean when you see thousands of fish species die in front of your eyes?
It’s heartbreaking. Our team watched a slow-motion catastrophe. We first-hand witnessed an ecosystem disappearing. If that’s not alarming, then I don’t know what is.
If you can’t feel something about that, then …
Jeff: Yeah, then we’ve got a lot bigger problems.
How avid a diver were you before the movie entered your life?
Jeff: I technically knew how to dive, but I had not really done it. I had my SCUBA certification from a decade prior, but I really didn’t know exactly what I was doing.
Had you done much underwater photography and filming?
Jeff: None. When we when first started the project, Richard TK was talking about other divers that he could connect us to and other cinematographers. In the back of my head, I just thought it would be a lot cheaper for me to learn how to do it myself than hiring other people. And that worked out fine.
Except that it was massively challenging, as the movie showed, to solve the problem of how to document coral reef bleaching.
Jeff: Well, the challenging part of the film was inventing the new cameras. And the really challenging part was being in the right place at the right time. That was the trickiest thing because you are sort of looking for a needle in a haystack.
One of the big things that we realized, in comparison to Chasing Ice, is that you can set up one camera to document an entire glacier. You can’t set up one camera to document an entire coral reef. You can set up one camera to document a couple of corals, or part of a reef. If a reef is bleaching, it doesn’t mean that the entire thing turns white. It became a huge challenge around how do we captured it. We tried to figure out all sorts of techniques for that.
Is there one time-lapse, video, or still image, that is your favorite?
Jeff: Oh, I don’t know. The very first time-lapse that we reveal is particularly meaningful to me. We had scouted that spot, and I saw this like fluorescing bright purple coral, and it was really hard to get the camera lined up the way I wanted. I had gotten that shot, the first shot, and I thought, “If this thing bleaches, or if this thing dies, it’s going to be a great shot.” And then, it did end up dying pretty horribly.
It affirmmed “it works,” in this really horrifying way. I knew from day one, if this coral changed, it was going to be really powerful. So, that shot, for me, is particularly meaningful.
When you were documenting this, what would you say was the most incredible thing that you personally witnessed?
Jeff: There are so many things and so many moments. I’m totally addicted to the ocean now—I did not realize how magical or special it was. It is a thing of privilege to be able to go to some of these places, and to see how spectacular they are, and I just want to keep doing that now.
When you walk through a forest, you can see animals at a distance, but usually, the animals scurry away. You can get close to bugs and stuff, and you can get close to some things, but it still feels like you go through clearing a path, that everything else is distancing itself from you.
When you’re SCUBA diving, especially with a re-breather, you get so close to these things. In many cases, they just ignore you, and you’re in amongst schools of fish. Sharks come close to you. Grouper come close to you. You can scare them away, for sure, but there’s something that feels very different. You feel much more immersed.
That is a very commonly used word for the oceans, because it is such a three-dimensional space, but it really is this immersive experience in nature. You’re completely surrounded by life, that is on a healthy, thriving reef, and that’s a very, very cool experience, to get to take part in that.
Along those lines, what would you say was the most heartbreaking thing you witnessed?
Jeff: The most heartbreaking thing, honestly, was watching Zach TK get emotional. It was seeing his pain and suffering. Like he says in the film, there were times when he just didn’t want to be there. Trying to keep the morale up and keep the team going to document an underwater apocalypse… I did’t know how to frame it.
It’s challenging because I don’t want people to think that the film is super-depressing. We didn’t structure it that way. But those were sort of my biggest takeaways. It’s this real tricky balance between things that are really bad in the ocean, and on the planet right now, a lot of people don’t know how bad it is. We have to pay attention to this.
But at the same time, we don’t want the film to feel like homework. The film is, hopefully, entertaining and captivating and mesmerizing. Hopefully, it can hook somebody in.
There’s so much wonder in just seeing the life that’s under the sea and the global community talking about what they’ve seen locally, is really powerful.
What challenges you had to overcome for chasing underwater coral photography, versus the glacier time-lapse stuff?
Jeff: There are so many challenges that I don’t even think of them as challenges, in some ways. It’s just like you know things aren’t going to work, and you go into it knowing that a lot of things won’t work. You just figure out, you just solve the problem and move on. That’s sort of how I think of it.
Going in with that mindset makes it a lot easier because it makes it easier because all of those obstacles just become part of the journey.
Do you think that extreme cold or deep underwater is more challenging?
Jeff: As a cinematographer, it’s harder to work in the ocean, than it is to work in the Arctic. In the Arctic, the cold, you wear the right equipment and you’re fine. But you can use one camera, and you can go everywhere. That wasn’t super challenging.
With the ocean, it’s really hard to shoot cinema verite, and follow somebody on a boat, and into the water. You just can’t do that. And saltwater is very, very relentless on equipment. And shooting on boats is hard, because you’ve engine noise. It’s so noisy, and you’re bouncing around. You can’t hear people, and really great conversations happen when people are just sitting for 20 minutes, on a boat, and waiting to get to the spot.
And then, somebody’s getting ready, and rigged up to go in the water, and you can’t shoot all of that, and get ready to go in the water yourself, too. It’s a really tricky challenge of handling above-water and below-the-surface shooting. That’s tricky and required a lot more people and effort. It’s harder to shoot as a one-man band, on the ocean, which is sort of like, I enjoy shooting that way.
With the Great Barrier Reef, are there any reports of improvements, or is it just continuing to kind of fade away?
Jeff: Unfortunately, no. The stat in the film is that 29 percent of the Great Barrier died last year, and about another 20 percent died this year, even though it wasn’t an El Nino. There was continued bleaching, so we’ve lost about half of the Great Barrier Reef between the last two years. That is crazy. That’s really, really shocking.
The Great Barrier Reef is probably the only reef that a general audience knows by name. And it’s passed on.
Jeff: Yeah. One of the seven natural wonders, it’s a World Heritage Site. It’s all of these things, and we are literally just cooking it to death, by accident. You know, it’s the unintended consequence of our lifestyle, and the way we’ve developed our civilization. We are cooking away an amazing natural wonder, the largest structure on the planet that can be seen from space. It’s incredibly sad.
Like I was saying at the start, the whole point of this is not just about coral reefs. This problem doesn’t stop with coral reefs. If we all say “Oh, it’s too late. We can’t save the coral reef. Let’s continue the status quo,” then we’re just going to keep hearing about other problems to other ecosystems very soon.
It doesn’t end here. It’s just going to continue, to where we grow our food, where we get our water from, and where people live. We are going to change the fundamental experience of human civilization, and it’s not going to be pretty. We know the problem. We know how to solve it. We have the solutions. We’re just not adopting them fast enough. That’s the frustrating part.
You started with documenting glaciers, and they were retreating quickly. But now, you’ve seen what’s happening with coral reefs. Do you think that they’re actually a more significant impact on how the entire sort of chain of life behaves?
Jeff: Absolutely. The biggest eye-opening stat for me, in this whole project, was that 93 percent of the heat from climate change gets absorbed into the ocean. So, when you look at atmospheric change, and when you look at changes happening to glaciers on one end, that really only represents about 7 percent of the problem. The problem is really affecting the oceans. That is scary, in my mind, when you think about what that implies.
The oceans are just taking in all of this heat, just constantly taking in more and more heat, and we’re sort of treating it like a dumping ground. We’re not even aware of how bad it’s getting. We’re now getting to the point where we’re seeing tipping points. The ocean has been absorbing all of this heat for a long time.
It’s just like the pot of water on your stove. It’s going to keep getting hotter, but it doesn’t look too different. Then, it just starts boiling, right?
And right now, we’re seeing coral reefs at that stage, where they’re hitting the tipping point, and we’re going beyond their temperature threshold. They can’t survive any more. And that is super scary. Because like I said, it doesn’t stop there. It’s just going to continue. It’s going to hit more and more ecosystems, and we don’t know what’s in store for the oceans. It’s not going to be pretty.
After these two subjects of glaciers and oceans, with what you know about climate change now, are you thinking about a third kind of area of focus?
Jeff: Our team is really trying to focus on having an impact with this film. I don’t want to have to make more films about this. This is too depressing to spend your life involved in. Our objective is, knowing what we know, how do we make the changes that are necessary?
The challenge there, in my mind, is that a lot of this type of material usually gets preached to the choir. Usually, it stays with the relatively small circles of knowledge and insight, and it’s hard to get the information out, beyond that. That’s what we’re trying to do, our team.
We’ve developed an entire impact team that is, first of all, we’ve got an amazing team that worked on the whole making of the film, the development of all of it. Now, we’ve got another team that is really trying to focus on, how do we use the film for positive good, and for change? That’s the main objective.
Are they actually seeking out skeptics?
Jeff: We’re going to be piloting in South Carolina and in Georgia. We’re going to be testing partnerships that go beyond the normal groups, finding trusted local messengers, to get it. We are working a lot with schools, churches, and atypical groups. We are finding local climate impacts, showcasing those, looking for local stories of successful climate action, and showcasing those. We’re building an entire campaign around this experiment.
If we really heavily focus on a community that hasn’t really been super-proactive on climate change, well, Atlanta has been amazing. Atlanta has been doing some really, really great stuff. We’ve got some great partnerships there. But if we take our material, and our storytelling ability, and take it to this part of the country, what kind of positive impact could we have? And that’s really the question our team is trying to test for the next several months.
Are you guys trying to talk to the White House, at all?
Jeff: We haven’t made it a top objective goal. You know, if we had an opportunity to screen at the White House, we would absolutely take that up. We haven’t seen strong, super-strong leads or opportunities to do that, so we haven’t been heavily pursuing it. But, sure! That would be awesome.
What have you changed, personally, about your lifestyle, to try to reduce your personal impact on climate change?
Jeff: Our whole team has made so many changes. The big thing is that we need to shift the mindset. It somewhat bothers me when people frame things around “Oh, the solution is just your individual actions.” It’s so far beyond individual actions. This problem is too big. We need people to be focusing on their individual actions, yes, but you can’t stop there.
So, I got an electric car. I have solar panels on my house. I have drastically cut back on my meat intake. I don’t know, it’s probably an 80 percent reduction in my meat intake. I’m an aspiring vegan, but I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent vegan. But I’ve cut back massively on that, and I think most of our team has, in that same category.
I can think of like six or seven people on our core post-production team, that have all switched to electric cars, if not hybrids. And a bunch of them have solar panels. A number of people on our team are vegetarians. People are making those individual actions, but those, added up, won’t make a big enough difference.
We need to figure out how do we involve huge, huge players. How do we move companies? How do we move governments? For a long time, the messaging has been around the sacrifice mindset. “Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t eat this. Don’t drive. Don’t fly.” Understandably, people, skeptics, have been resistant, because they feel like they’re being told what to do.
Nobody wants to be told what to do, especially if they’re not fully on board with the reasoning. Instead of the sacrifice mindset, of “Don’t fly. Don’t drive. Don’t eat this. Don’t do that,” we’re now getting to a place where the solutions are just better and smarter. Driving an electric car is faster. They’ve got great acceleration. It’s so much fun. It doesn’t cost you money at the pump. Putting solar panels on your house is just smarter. It’s energy independence. It’s energy freedom. And it’s cleaner for you, and it’s free. After you install it, it doesn’t cost you anything.
We’re hitting this shift where the solutions are just smarter, now. Instead of saying “Don’t fly,” we should be asking “How do we fly carbon-free? How do we expedite that?”
There’s a company in France that has a plane that does 600 miles on an electric charge. Boeing and NASA are working on hybrid planes. How do we get fuel self-powered planes? How do we get solar planes? There is the electric plane that flew around the planet. It was slow, but they flew completely around the planet. How do we exploit all of that technology?
Whoever invents the first really commercially viable electric plane—just imagine the cost savings of not having to spend that much money on fuel to fly a plane. They’re going to make so much money. That is this new revolution that we’re going to go through. We need to be expediting that stuff. I still want to travel. I still want to fly places. I just don’t want to do it, and I don’t want to make carbon, in the process, right? That’s the shift that we need to get to.
It’s exciting, when you talk about it, though.
Jeff: Oh, it’s inevitable. It’s super exciting. I’m very optimistic we’re going to solve this. The challenge is just a matter of when. And the challenge is how much suffering will there be? And the challenge is how many ecosystems will we lose? How many environments will we lose? How many people, how many millions, if not billions of people, will suffer, because of these consequences? That’s the challenge. You know, the less, the better.
What is the worst-case possible scenario if we don’t do anything, and we just continue the status quo indefinitely? That doesn’t look super-pretty. Every action that we take, all of the work that we do individually for our own carbon footprint, that’s one step further away from that worst-case scenario. So, it still is worth it. It still is important. These actions do add up.
But it’s more important to shift the mindset, than it is to just make those actions. If you’re a vegetarian, you’re making an impact by not eating as much meat. Another option is being a vegetarian in your own home, and in your own world.
There’s another option where, if you go to a restaurant, are you actually asking restaurants why don’t they have better vegetarian options? How do we encourage better vegetarian options, more plant-based meals, and make it more enticing and more interesting? If I’m eating at a restaurant with a really delicious-looking menu, but the vegetarian options are pretty bland, it sucks to try to eat something that you feel is ethical, when the food looks terrible.
We need this shift in mindset. That’s the most paramount thing.
What do you think scientists can learn from storytellers about how to get their message out?
Jeff: I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. I’ve been studying how the human brain works, and there are different levels. There’s this reptilian level, the limbic level, and the neocortex. Science operates at the neocortex level. It’s abstract. It’s high-level thinking. One of the things that makes us most unique as humans is that abstract thought.
But story usually operates at that base level. It’s that reptilian level. It doesn’t require thought. It is super-easy for somebody to understand. When people say they want to sit back and relax at the end of a day, and just watch TV or watch a movie, or something, they’re usually not saying “Oh, I want to think and work hard.” They’re usually saying, “I want to check out, and not have to think.” That is where storytelling is most successful, is at that base level.
If you tell a story, an audience member can empathize with that position. They can put themselves in the position of the character in the story, and they ask themselves, subconsciously, all of these questions, like “What would I do, if I were in that situation?” And people are thinking in a very different type of way than how science normally communicates.
So, the challenge here is not a matter of, it’s not trying to dumb it down, it’s just trying to leverage how the brain works, to make things more accessible and more engaging. I find that people are very captivated by stories. I can’t tell you how many little kids, elementary school kids, seven-year-olds, who have come up to us, and said they loved the film. That’s a huge sign of success.
For a young kid, I don’t know if they’re necessarily grasping all of the science, all of the complicated information there, but if they can engage in the story, and care about it, at the end of the day, that’s the hope. That’s the goal.