“I think the word ‘chasing’ in the title is very appropriate. We started off in Florida and the Caribbean and we were documenting everything there, and then it took us to Hawaii, American Samoa; ultimately Australia is where we got a lot of the main footage in the film,” he tells Deadline. “We also went to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands—really every major coral reef region around the planet, we went to.”
He and his team captured unique visual evidence of the impact of rising ocean temperatures on widespread colonies of the marine creatures responsible for forming coral reefs—remarkable structures that are home to an estimated one quarter of all sea life. This vast natural resource has been decimated by climate change, Orlowski found.
“To put it in the simplest terms, because the oceans are heating up very, very rapidly we’ve already lost half of the corals on the planet,” he states. “The hot ocean temperatures are just killing corals left and right. And we watched and witnessed corals basically getting cooked to death right in front of our eyes.”
Orlowski became steeped in climate science for his Emmy-winning 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, which documented the world’s shrinking glaciers. Among that film’s many admirers was Richard Vevers, an advertising man turned ocean photographer and protector who had become alarmed at the devastation to coral reefs. He convinced the director to embark on the film, and serves as one of its principle characters.
“Having done Chasing Ice I thought I was pretty knowledgable about climate change and then when I met Richard it was really an eye-opening experience. It was really starting back from ground zero,” Orlowski recalls. “I felt like I didn’t know much about climate change because so much of the story as it turns out is really an ocean story. That was a huge, huge insight for me.”
It’s an ocean story because the seas absorb about 90 percent of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases. And marine plants generate a majority of the oxygen we breathe.
“We’re killing the machines that make our oxygen. That is one of the ripple effects we’re talking about,” Orlowski declares. “It’s about the stability of the planet that human civilization needs. There is no business as usual if we continue down this path.”
To show the way many coral reefs have gone from colorful and vibrant marine communities to virtual wastelands—a process known as coral bleaching—the director and his collaborators developed innovative time-lapse photographic systems.
“We had to invent new cameras and new techniques just to be able to capture this. This is something that has never been seen before,” Orlowski says. “[Scientists] have never been able to document it like this before.”
The prognosis for corals appears grim.
“We are expected to lose this ecosystem within the next 30 years or so,” Orlowski tells Deadline. “Humanity has never eradicated an entire ecosystem before. We’ve lost individual species here and there. And we have animal extinction going on, but we’ve never had an entire ecosystem get lost. So the scientists have a hard time projecting out how bad it’s going to be. But it’s not like it’s going to be good versus bad. It’s either going to be bad or extremely friggin’ bad.”
The consequences of that loss are suggested by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, which notes coral ecosystems possess “benefits for humans, such as fisheries that provide food and income for millions, reef-based recreation like diving and fishing that provide income for local economies and leisure to millions, and the medical potential of compounds isolated from organisms living on reefs.”
Some of the characters in Orlowski’s film, including diver, photographer and avowed “coral nerd” Zakery Rago, struggle to avoid despair over what’s happening to the reefs, a feeling Orlowski says he understands.
“It is a tough emotional balance there, for sure,” he concedes. “I don’t have a huge amount of hope for coral reefs…For me, my hope is on the ecosystems that follow it because climate change doesn’t stop with coral reefs. Based on our status quo right now it’s going to devastate countless other ecosystems down the line and we don’t even know how bad those are going to be. What I’m hopeful for is that we can prevent those losses.”
He adds, “There is lot of optimism for me because the rest of the world gets it. The youth get it. More and more Republicans are coming around and speaking out about it—when I say Republicans, I mean Republican politicians.”
Chasing Coral, currently streaming on Netflix, recently earned a spot on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, an exclusive roster of 15 that will be trimmed to the final five Academy Award nominees next month.
“It’s definitely humbling,” Orlowski says of the shortlist recognition. “There are so many incredible films this year. When the news came in it was just thrilling. I was over the moon…I’m biased, of course, but I do believe it’s a really powerful film and it’s about a really, really critical issue.”