As a piece of environmental activism, Chasing Coral is bluntly effective. The scientists featured in Jeff Orlowski’s documentary articulate the case for why we need to worry about the impending extinction of coral in ways that make the science accessible to laypeople—arguments that especially resonate in a time when there’s still debate about whether climate change is real or not. But Chasing Coral is far from a dry scientific exegesis along the lines of An Inconvenient Truth. Instead, it’s populated with magnetic figures—especially Zackery Rago, a self-described “coral nerd” with long, surfer-blond hair—who help bring an emotional urgency to the film, imbuing it with dramatic life-or-death stakes by sheer force of the collective belief in their mission.
What makes Chasing Coral play as more than just another activist doc is its focus on the power of images as a way to inspire change. It’s appropriate that our entry point into the world of coral is Richard Vevers, a former ad exec from London who left his job after 10 years in order to pursue his passion for the ocean. That devotion led him to create The Ocean Agency, a nonprofit committed to, among other things, finding ways to photograph underwater life in order to make it more visible to the public. Visibility becomes one of Vevers’s driving causes, especially once he stumbles upon the problem of coral bleaching, a periodic phenomenon that indicates mass coral death, and which threatens to wipe out the species as a whole during our lifetime. In some of his on-camera interviews, he frames the issue in terms of “optics,” discussing the problems of capturing definitive photographic evidence of this phenomenon in order to make the problem feel real to the masses.
That bit of ad-speak becomes Chasing Coral’s narrative motor. As he did in his 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, Orlowski structures the film as a quest narrative, generating race-against-time suspense in the various missions to capture before-and-after footage of coral bleaching once the conservationists realize another mass event is imminent. Thus, even as it tries to explore both the science behind corals and the human figures behind the conservation efforts, the film also plays as a procedural of sorts, devoting just as much screen time to efforts to develop the right kind of underwater camera, find the right locations to place cameras in, and regroup after an initial month-and-a-half effort disappointingly yields footage that’s blurry and unusable.
Chasing Coral could thus be seen as a feature-length metaphor for the filmmaking process, with Vevers, Rago, and other specialists in the field of corals, reefs, and climate change standing in as a collective analogue for obsessive artists willing to go to any lengths to get exactly the image they want. The oceanic footage that these men and women capture, though, is worth the immense effort and patience. Indeed, the images that Vevers is able to take of living corals and other underwater life is truly awe-inspiring in its visual vibrancy, giving full credence to the sense of wide-eyed wonder he exudes whenever he talks about the ocean and the life contained therein.
Contrast that, though, with the footage of dead corals we see, with all the life and color sucked out of them, only bits of algae hanging from their polyps. One may well find oneself becoming just as emotional as many of the marine biologists at the 2016 International Coral Reef Symposium visibly are when, at Chasing Coral’s climax, Rago unveils the before-and-after coral footage he and others have worked so tirelessly to capture. Bearing witness to this footage is akin to seeing the death of an entire ecosystem right before your eyes. Even the most ardent of climate-change deniers may well be unable to deny the visceral impact of seeing the fatal, devastating result of a mere two-degree rise in oceanic temperature on these life-giving invertebrates.