It’s a particular challenge for documentaries about climate change to get an audience’s attention. Besides persuading those who don’t believe it’s happening, filmmakers must present a scientific argument in layman’s terms. Throughout Jeff Orlowski’s riveting film, Chasing Coral, scientists equate the widespread bleaching and death of coral reefs to mass deforestation. It may be easier to imagine destroyed trees than it is to think about what’s going on in majestic underwater environments that most people can’t visit. Yet in addition to making you want to immediately book a vacation to Hawaii, Chasing Coral presents a convincing argument for the preservation of coral reefs, and that Earth’s rising temperatures – courtesy of greenhouse gases – threaten to ruin the nation’s biggest ecosystem. A story of passionate pioneers who love reefs becomes a clarion call for change and one of the year’s most essential movies.

If you know nothing about coral reefs other than their beauty, prepare for an eye-opening experience. Blending the approachability of a Bill Nye episode with all the terror of An Inconvenient Truth, Orlowski and crew make you care about their subject. The film’s first half lays out the basics about what coral is, a fact not known by one of the film’s main characters, Richard Vevers. Coral is a living, breathing organism all its own, whose food supply, power and protection makes a home for millions of different animals. They build their own environments and habitats like an organic high-rise. Everything within the colony works together to feed and sustain the structure in a way that’s a prototype for humanity. As it’s bizarrely summed up, no two corals are the same, and yet they are the same.

Chasing Coral’s motley cast of characters are as unique and wondrous as the coral they’re in love with. And make no mistake, the group are dyed in the wool “coral nerds” whose enthusiasm is infectious. Their broad grins endear them to viewers and invest us so that we feel the disappointment when they discover the horrors of dying coral. Rattling off coral species like they’re American states, Zach Rago, described as a coral lunatic, is the nerd whose journey to save the coral transforms him. His house is filled with reefs that lack fish. “It’s amazing to think about how massive it is, and it’s all alive,” he excitedly declares.

He’s not wrong. Outside of their ability to be self-sustaining, as a way of combating coral bleaching some reefs produce fluorescent “sunscreen” in vivid shades of blue, violet and yellow. To see it is spectacular, but it comes at the expense of knowing it’s a defense mechanism.

Chasing Coral’s primary motivation is to show the impact of coral bleaching, a bizarre phenomenon where wide swaths of coral up and die. In just 30 years over 50% of the world’s coral has died via this process, with the effects of bleaching leaving nothing behind but the organism’s skeleton. Watching Rago hold rotting coral “flesh” that sloughs off underwater drives the point home, once again, that these are living beings. Much of this results from minor rises in ocean temperatures that would be the equivalent of a fatal fever in humans. The issues inherent to the level of coral destruction is profound. Several prominent cancer medicines come from coral reef organisms, and reefs protect ocean communities from major tidal waves as well as aid those who survive off a diet of seafood. The fear is that in 25-30 years all the coral in the world will be bleached.

The scientists’ excitement notwithstanding, the film employs other techniques to prove to the audience that coral is a living organism. The aerial and underwater photography here is on par with BBC’s Planet Earth, although it is disheartening it is to see before and after shots of reefs once teeming with fish now reduced to looking like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The world of a coral reef “isn’t a silent world at all,” a scientist says, so hearing fish swim around these reefs is a potent reminder of how much of a living, breathing thing coral is and what’s being destroyed.

But the film is as optimistic as its human subjects are enthusiastic. Orlowski treats coral bleaching with all the respect and reverence of watching someone waste away from a preventable cancer. He’s determined to save it – “you do what you have to do” – and with the help of Rago the two travel to the Great Barrier Reef to show the effects of coral bleaching. Their stamina is astounding as they make two-minute videos of coral up to 25 times a day to prove to naysayers that climate change is a reality. By the time they complete their footage, which shows massive deterioration in just a two-month period, the young man is completely demoralized. It’s up to Rago, and the audience, to save the reefs.

Coral reefs are as important to the environment as trees, and to lose them would be the equivalent of losing a quarter of our oceans. Chasing Coral eschews the usual scare tactics in favor of showing the spectacular beauty of its subject. That may be all an audience needs to convince them to make a difference.

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