Most people stare into space with wanderlust despite the fact we have an alien world habiting our oceans. Perhaps the most magical aspect of this world is the coral reef ecosystems that hold just as much biodiversity as earth’s rainforests. Corals are animals that live together forming their own ecosystem that can be seen from space. Coral reefs are a critical global ecosystem, supporting 25% of all marine life worldwide despite representing less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean floor.
We humans also rely on these ecosystems. Coral reefs have a conservative value of $1 trillion, generating £300-400 billion each year in terms of food and livelihoods from tourism, fisheries and medicines. 500 million people worldwide depend on coral reefs for their main source of protein with ¼ fish having part of its life cycle on the reef.
The first corals on record date back to over 500 million years ago. While modern corals have been around for millions of years, they have not faced stressors with the same rapid pace that they do today. Florida has lost 80-90% of their coral cover, the Great Barrier Reef lost 29% in 2016 alone. In the last 30 years 50% of the world’s corals have died. The rapid decline of our planets coral ecosystems is of grave concern.
What is causing this destruction? For many years coral reefs have been in global decline because of local issues such as pollution and overfishing. Now climate change is proving to be an even greater threat. 93% of global carbon dioxide emissions end up in the ocean, this coupled with rapidly increasing ocean temperatures are causing mass coral die offs.
In the next 30 years, approximately 90% of coral reefs will die due to climate change (even if the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement are achieved). Increasing temperatures are causing mass coral bleaching events. This is where the photosynethic zoonthanele that live inside the corals structure, providing the coral with food, seize to work due to high temperatures and so the coral expels them. The corals then essentially starve and die, leaving reefs of white white skeletons.
Coral bleaching is a threat to reef systems across the globe, and has already happened in many countries. It is this global threat that lead Richard Vevers and his team to try and convey this global threat to the general public with their documentary ‘Chasing Coral’. The ongoing problem with the ocean is that its problems are out of sight, out of mind. Richard coming from a media background, saw this as an advertising issue, people could not engage with the ocean and its problems. The power of film can activate individuals, mobilize communities and build bridges hopefully being able to change the fate of coral reefs.
The aim of the project was to create 360 degree images of reef ecosystems in the same style as google maps, to allow people to explore these ecosystems from behind their computer desk. Using time lapse cameras they wanted to capture bleaching events in Hawaii, Bermuda, Bahamas and Australia. The idea was to have these cameras in the water for 2 months, collecting thousands of images. Unfortunately, due to technological difficulties and changing conditions, these stationary cameras did not produce the desired imagery.
The team had to drastically rethink how they would document these bleaching events. The decision was made that instead of using stationary cameras, they would have to record the images manually. This meant spending 4 hours a day underwater, every day for 3 months. Taking images from the same spots over and over again, in order to capture the biological changes that occurred.
This new technique, although extremely tiresome, worked perfectly. However, what it captured was extremely depressing. In just one month the reef at lizard island, Australia experienced a mass coral die off. In New Caledonia they saw something amazing, the coral turned florescent, with an array of blues and greens. Although beautiful this was the corals last effort of protecting itself before they die. The corals were secreting a natural chemical “sunscreen” to help protect themselves from the excess UV radiation that is associated with a bleaching event. A beautiful stage of death.
The images and footage collected by the team are being used to expose the world to the struggle our coral reef ecosystems are facing. We hear of the phrases climate change and coral bleaching, but it is not until you see the coral going from a beautiful living community to a graveyard of skeletons, that you understand what is actually happening.
The work done by the team lead to the formation of the 50 reefs project. 50 reefs is a one year initiative that aims to bolster existing coral reef conservation efforts globally by identifying coral reefs that are less vulnerable to climate change and have the greatest capacity to reseed other reefs over time. Knowledge gained during this initiative will be used to protect coral reefs from global and local threats. Communication surrounding the 50 reefs initiative has helped inspire public and stakeholder support – not just for the protection of specific reef sites, but also action around the world to combat climate change.
Losing the Great Barrier Reef must wake up the world. If we can’t save this iconic ecosystem, then what hope do we have when it comes to saving the next ecosystem that is in serious trouble. Based on current trends, within the next 30 years annual bleaching will kill most of the world’s corals.
Productions like Chasing Coral are a great way to tell the world about what is going on. The truth is, we need an ecological revolution. The public need to make enough noise that our governments start to listen. We cannot sit back and allow the world’s biggest industries to profit from the destruction of our planet.
All children are born adventuress, they are full of curiosity. We need to allow them to hold onto that and use it to save our planets ecosystems. Changes are beginning but we need to push, we need to keep the momentum going. It is inevitable, we have to change, but we control the pace and direction. Coral reef systems are some of the most majestic natural wonders on our planet. To allow them to disappear at the hand of man would be disastrous. Only by making ourselves aware of what is going on can we start to make a difference.
Footnote: For free educational resources on coral visit the chasing coral website. For more information about coral bleaching and ocean acidification, read my articles on these subjects in the climate category.