The Netflix Originals documentary, Chasing Coral, left an indelible impact on the world by documenting the effect of global warming on marine life. Richard Vevers, underwater photographer, and founder and CEO, The Ocean Agency, shares his experience of discovering colour in what he presumed to be an ocean graveyard.
The holidaymakers of New Caledonia were partying hard, up there on the floating restaurant. A few metres beneath the surface, I glanced at my dive watch. It was barely past noon. French trance music thudded from above; warm ocean water smothered everything, save the bass line. I could feel it in my chest: its swift and feverish heartbeat. Below me, the ocean was dying in spectacular fashion. A vast coral reef was ablaze like a hellish forest of neon, engulfed by flames of fluorescent yellow and blue.
Tiny reef fish darted in frantic crisscross patterns around the surreal alien seascape. The bubbles from my regulator trickled to a stop. I was literally breathless. It was the saddest and most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. I was witnessing the reef’s final plea for help, a phenomenon that marine scientists call ‘fluorescing.’
The ocean temperature has been on the rise for years now. Over 90 per cent of the heat produced due to climate change is absorbed by the oceans. This can be fatal for corals. It’s like we are boiling them alive as they slowly starve to death due to the loss of their source of food; algae for instance, which is also fast depleting because of the increase in temperature. When this happens, these corals release a fluorescent protein, a chemical sunscreen of sorts, in a desperate attempt to shield themselves from the sun’s rays. Fluorescing is often the terminal stage of coral bleaching, the sickness that ravages reefs and leaves behind a bone white graveyard.
But that day, the colours of the reef were brilliant and blinding. In all my years as an underwater photographer, I had never seen anything like this—nor had anyone else, anywhere. I tapped my tank, trying to catch the attention of my dive buddy, Andrew. When he turned around, I could tell that he was thinking the same thing I was: we needed to capture this moment and share it with the world. Cameras whirring, we swam through the dying reef.
My heart broke with every kick of my fins. And yet, at the same time, I was awestruck by the pure splendour of these fevered corals. They seemed to understand the cruel reality of modern human existence: if you want people to notice you, you have to go to extremes. If you want them to care… well, that takes a miracle. When I finally returned to the surface, my camera was
shaking in my hands. I felt as if I’d just had an out-of-body experience. Andrew floated over to me. He had the same glazed look on his face. “I think I need a beer,” he said. I couldn’t have agreed more.
We sat in silence on the floating restaurant, sipping Heinekins and watching people frolic in the balmy shallows above the fluorescent reef. They splashed around, laughing and whooping with joy. None of them seemed to notice anything unusual about their surroundings. The global bleaching event over the last three years has been the worst coral die-off in history and we’re trying everything we can to protect and conserve the reefs.
We’ve launched global projects like 50 Reefs, which identifies and protects the world’s least vulnerable reefs so they can be used to regrow the reefs of the future; we’re coordinating our efforts for massive conservation drives like the International Year of the Reef in 2018 and searching for every clue that might help us save the marine ecosystems that humanity depends on. And we’re finding reasons to be hopeful. But miracles do happen. This reef beneath the floating restaurant in New Caledonia, which looked like it was dying in such a supernova of tragic beauty, today has somehow come back to life. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But it’s true, and it taught me something I’ll never forget: seeing is believing, and if we can make enough people believe, we can save the coral reefs.