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A Fever in Our Oceans: A Chat with Zack Rago of Chasing Coral

By now you probably have seen or heard of Chasing Coral, a Netflix original documentary that was released worldwide on July 14. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Netflix on the same day. Coral bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures is the focus of the film which took over 3 years to make. The film begins as a visual feast for any aquarium hobbyist but is overshadowed by the massive scale coral deaths that were documented with time lapse photography.

Zackery Rago features prominently in the documentary. Zack is a self proclaimed coral nerd from Colorado and built the camera systems that were used in the film. He confesses early on that the opportunity to work on the film given his passion for the hobby was a dream wish. He shares raw emotions throughout the film, often times breaking down at the sheer enormity of the events he is witnessing in that moment. Charlie Veron also makes an appearance and talks about his observations of the reefs past and present.

Also notable was the outreach that was done to ask divers and scientists from all over the world to participate. The film features excepts from global reports of similar events happening in oceans around the world. The film is easily able to communicate their objective of turning up the spotlight on a global problem in a powerful way.

We had a chance to ask Zack Rago some questions.

The film took 3 years to make, have you had a chance to go back to the same locations since to see how the bleaching has progressed or recovered?

We returned to many locations throughout the production of Chasing Coral. There have certainly been reefs that fared better than others. Unfortunately, the vast majority of reefs that were under thermal stress also had very serious mortality rates. It will be extremely interesting to wait and see the data on both coral coverage lost, and recovery rates in the coming years.

How can an individual, a hobbyist, make a difference? Can we save our reefs?

This is the big question, and it has a complicated answer. I think that we as citizens live in an extremely interesting and exciting time to be voices of activism. It is that fact that keeps me optimistic. Now more then ever, people are understanding that they have a voice and can have a bigger impact. As hobbyists we have a much deeper connection to the corals reefs and we provide an opportunity for coral reefs. So many of the methodologies being using in the marine science field have fundamental roots in the aquarium hobby and in-house experimentation. While the outlook for coral reefs in the foreseeable future may be quite grim, I think the hobbyists will play a big role in protecting corals.

How do you hope to convert people that are supportive to actual activism?

There is a beautiful quote by Baba Dioum that reads, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” The ocean is truly out of sight and out of mind. I hope that the film and our Impact Campaign can leverage the love and knowledge featured in the film. It is people falling in love with coral reefs and nature as a whole that will cultivate actual activism.

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American Samoa © XL Catlin Seaview Survey The Ocean Agency Richard Vevers

Is it possible for bleached areas to recover? How long does it take? Have you documented any such recovery anywhere?

Bleaching is a term has been affiliated with coral reefs dying. While it is sometimes likely for corals to die during a bleaching event, the bleaching itself is actually a survival mechanism for the corals. If they did not remove their symbiotic algae, they would face certain death because of gnarly molecules they produce in the heat. The phenomena of bleaching is the coral’s only chance of survival during these thermal events. If that temperature decreases within a month that coral will have the chance to replenish that algae and energy source. If the temperature stays above that threshold for over a month, the corals are likely to die.

What would be your top 5 suggestions for reducing our carbon footprint?

There is no silver bullet to climate change. The new book Drawdown by Paul Hawken does a great job looking at the changes that make the biggest impact and many of them are not what the average person would guess, like refrigerant management. That being said, the cliché, ride your bike, be conscious of your diet, eliminate single use plastics, and change your light bulbs are still great ways to decrease our personal footprints.

In one scene you found a soda cup floating and it was upsetting to you. How much ocean trash have you encountered during your dives? What can be done about this problem?

Unfortunately, plastic is all too common no matter where you might be diving. Even the most remote beaches are impacted by plastic pollution. There is a lot of focus on our plastic problems and thankfully we have seen a good amount of progress through some of those campaigns. We really must change the way we think and engage with action about these global problems. Luckily this is an engineering problem. If we are loud enough with demand, the supply will follow. As demand for plastic bags and other single use plastic decreases, businesses will have to evolve with the market.

 

Trevally at Lady Elliot Island Photo By The Ocean Agency XLCatlin Seaview Survey Christophe Bailhache

You have said that the rising ocean temperature is the most immediate threat to our coral reefs. What are the other threats?

Coral reefs are extremely fragile. Even the smallest of changes can have dramatic impacts on the functionality of a coral reef ecosystem. Coral reefs are in such a dire situation because of a combination of environmental changes. Overfishing, agricultural runoff and water pollution, dredging projects, ocean acidification and plastic pollution is just a broad list of challenges facing this ecosystem.

When coral develop those neon fluorescent colors that you documented in the film, is that almost always an indication of imminent death or can the pigment protect them?

This is one of my favorite questions because they are questions that we are really looking forward to learning more about. What we do know is that when corals bleach they have lost the most important energy source they have. They are now in conservation mode. Some corals make a decision to use a good chunk of that energy and produce these florescent proteins. This gives the coral extra protection from excess UV light affiliated with these thermal events. The catch is, if the temperature stays above normal these corals tend to die rapidly in comparison to other corals who may slowly lose their tissue.

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The good news is we have actually observed this method working in the wild. In the film we see the fluorescing corals on a huge scale in New Caledonia. Those reefs ended up having fairly low mortality rates considering how widespread the bleaching was in the area. It will be interesting to see if research is done on the genetics behind this fluorescing phenomena and how that could be expressed in natural populations.

 

The Ocean Agency XL Catlin Seaview Survey Richard Vevers Christophe Bailhache

In the film, you had to rush to areas on the Great Barrier Reef that had an incoming heat wave where you captured the bleaching as it happened. How long did it actually take for those corals to die before your eyes?

The corals around Lizard Island, that we documented, died in 1-2 months time.

Is it really enough to simply host movie screenings and post on social media?

Absolutely not. Sharing this story is a tool to start a broader conversation about our relationship with our environment, or more importantly the economic values and securities that the environment provides us. We must fundamentally change our society and our ideologies. Then we can begin the real movement to a more harmonic relationship with nature. I hope that this film and this emotional adventure can be a way to reach people in a way that pushes to the tipping point we need.

 

The Ocean Agency XL Catlin Seaview Survey Richard Vevers

Do you have a reef tank at home? Give us some details.

I have 3 at the moment but my real pride is my 90 Gallon Cube with 2 Kessil 360W and around 4,000 gph of movement. I used to grow a lot of SPS and I still have a few of my favorite Acroporas. Right now the system is mostly LPS. My Orange Crush Acanthastrea echinata, Pink Boobies Chalice, and diverse Euphyllia collection are probably the highlights at the moment

What are some of your favorite corals to keep in a reef tank?

My favorite coral is the frogspawn coral and all of the Euphyllia species. However, Acropora has always been my favorite to keep.

How does the ornamental fish and coral trade impact the health of wild reefs; both negative and positive?

The fish and coral trade has played such an instrumental role in my life and career path. I think we have to accept that the trade has its dark side. There are certainly species that I think need to stay in the ocean but I also think that the reef aquarium hobby plays a huge role in education and our understanding of corals and the other organisms we have the opportunity to observe. At the end of the day, our methodologies for fragging corals and growing them in-house has become the platform for some of the most extensive coral restoration programs on the planet. It has led to the successful captive breeding of many species. Aquarists are the driving force for innovating the technology that allows us replicate this amazingly complicated ecosystem and therefore learn more about it.

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When you look at those achievements through the lens of science, the hobby really does have a positive influence on the state of coral reefs that outweighs any negative impacts in my opinion.

 

Have there been studies on corals that thrive in warmer waters and if they can be transplanted to areas that are now warmer than normal in an effort towards restoration?

The single biggest interest in coral reef science is how to selectively breed corals with higher tolerance to thermal anomalies. Assisted evolution is a good way to describe what many scientists are looking at. There are a lot of hopeful findings but there is still much work to be done.

What is next for you? Where do you go from here?

My future is working with our Impact Campaign. We want to use the film to start the conversation within communities and regions that are tipping points right now. We live a very exciting time and activism has been rekindled around the world. We are supporting the local champions around the world to host hundreds of screenings in their communities and providing the tools, resources and opportunities to take meaningful action.


Special Note: Richard Vevers is the founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, an unconventional not-for-profit that uses the powerful combination of new technology, media, partnerships, and above all creativity to work at a meaningful speed and scale. Richard’s new initiative 50 Reefs is expanding the film’s global call for bleaching reports to help build seed banks for future coral reefs. If you live near a reef or dive regularly and would like to submit local bleaching reports email [email protected] at The Ocean Agency with Subject Line: 50 Reefs Global Call.

Zackery Rago

Zack’s passion for coral reefs began in the Hawaiian Islands were he spent his childhood summers under the waves of the Pacific. His infatuation with coral led to a position in the marine aquarium industry for 4 years before bringing his passion to Teens4Oceans and View Into The Blue. He received a degree in Evolutionary Biology & Ecology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. As a talented reef aquarist and long time scuba diver, he is dedicated to communicating the story of coral through science and art.

Zack built the camera systems that were used in the film.

Chasing Coral was directed by Jeff Orlowski and produced by Larissa Rhodes. The film took more than three years to shoot, and is the result of 500+ hours underwater, submissions of footage from volunteers from 30 countries, as well as support from more than 500 people from various locations around the world.

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