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Review: Chasing Coral 

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We are just totting up the damage of the third global coral bleaching and it’s bad, very bad. At least 29 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef killed, around the globe corals bleached far worse than in the previous two bleaching bouts and the horrible realisation that it likely, very likely to happen again soon.

What Chasing Coral - just premiered on Netflix - makes starkly clear it that there is only one overriding cause for this mayhem - us! This is not a natural cycle. You can go back hundreds of years as the scientists have done in ancient coral samples drilled from the reef and see coral growing at a natural, steady rate of a couple of centimetres a year.

Only in the past 20 years do you see the bleak, black outline in the samples of a bleaching event - first in 1998, again in 2010 and the last wave which started in 2014 and relentlessly continued until last year as summer temperatures in our oceans soared way above what the corals can endure.

They stop growing, they expel their symbiotic zooxanthellae and then they give up the fight and succumb to the life-denying algae.

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Director Jeff Orlowski preparing a drone

Despite the siren like calls of denial, there is only one cause – the steady climbing of the average temperature of our oceans. And that, as every scientist interviewed for this at times harrowing film, makes clear is caused by us burning fossil fuels and releasing an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It’s physics, simple science that most of us understand. In fact, as divers we probably know this whole story only too well. But that doesn’t diminish the importance and impact of this urgent polemic made by director Jeff Orlowski, who had previously won awards for a similar film about another impact of climate change Chasing Glaciers.

We are not the target audience - just a small sub-section who happen to have seen the delights of a living, teeming coral reef with our own eyes. No, this film is out to tell everyone from politicians to school children, from those already engaged to the sublimely ignorant, that all of us are killing one of earth's natural wonders and, even worse, this act of greedy stupidity could well threaten the welfare of the whole planet.

It uses the device of telling the story through the eyes of a team of researchers and film-makers attempting to document the impact of this most recent round of bleaching. This technique, in less skilled hands, could well have jarred. But it does create a narrative and towards the end of the film a very powerful emotional resonance. 

As the team succeed in gaining the footage they had so desperately fought to achieve, you realise the awful irony that their success was to witness the thing they so cared about actually being destroyed. It is deeply upsetting seeing their pain as they get back on the boat after crumbling dead coral in their hands.

Much of the filming and editing is stunning. It holds back on showing the full impact of the bleaching to a clever scene where one of the researchers is warned not to cry when he is to show his work to a symposium of coral scientists. As the skilfully crafted then-and-now shots are played to the gnarly ranks of senior scientists they are the ones to weep, as well, no doubt, as plenty of the Netflix's audience on their sofas. 

It is unashamedly manipulative and emotional. And all the better for it. This is a film for all of us. We should all share the collective shame of allowing this to happen on our watch.

For divers our responsibility is to make sure as many people as possible watch this film and then to persuade as many of them to join us and see a living reef for themselves. Because as we know once you have seen the sheer glory of a coral reef you don’t want to be responsible for it's destruction.

Graeme Gourlay

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