A film screening beneath the stars, with a warm breeze rippling over the sand. It sounds idyllic, but the mood in the audience was somber, even tearful.

The spectators gathered on Seven Mile Public Beach on Aug. 3 were watching a tragedy, or horror story of sorts, one in which millions of vibrant beings were reduced to crumbling skeletons by an unseen menace. The victims? Coral. And the story, unfortunately, was true.

The documentary “Chasing Coral” has been a sensation since premiering at the Sundance Festival 2017 (where it scooped up the U.S. Documentary Audience Award), followed by its release on Netflix in July. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, it explores the widespread “bleaching” of coral caused by rising ocean temperatures.

From Bangalore to Aspen, community screenings have been happening around the world. Grand Cayman was no exception, with the film projected onto a screen hung from a beach cabana.

Organizer Carol Henry says: “After watching the documentary, I felt inspired to take action, to spread the knowledge and motivate others. I wanted everyone to be able to see the water and hear the waves while watching the documentary to feel a connection to the coral and sea.”

She intends to make these documentary screenings a regular occurrence, planning the next one for later this month or early September.

Underwater storytelling

“Chasing Coral” does an excellent job of explaining ‘the science bit’ in a simple, engaging way. Coral has a symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae, which provide its primary food source and brilliant colors. A sea temperature change of just 2 degrees Fahrenheit can force coral to expel the algae, leaving it starved, colorless and susceptible to disease – which has been happening at an alarming rate, worldwide, due to trapped greenhouse gases warming the oceans. Bleached coral can recover if the sea cools, but when high temperatures persist for months, the coral dies.

The documentary took three years to shoot and is the result of more than 500 hours underwater. Filming off the coasts of Caribbean islands, Hawaii and Australia, the crew captured much of the footage manually, diving with special cameras to meticulously record the day-to-day changes on the ocean floor.

Filming the ocean floor using bespoke underwater cameras.

Before viewers’ eyes, thriving marine metropolises, teeming with rays, turtles and tropical fish, wither into barren wastelands. Coral in brilliant shades of amber and magenta turn bright white, before degrading to colorless mulch.

It is a testament to the documentary’s power that these underwater graveyards seem as horrifying as piles of real bones.

But emotions aside, the facts are stark and compelling:

  • Coral reefs are home to 25 percent of all marine life on the planet.
  • 93 percent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases is absorbed by the oceans.
  • 50 percent of reefs globally have died in the last 30 years.
  • Even if the world could halt global warming now, scientists still expect that more than 90 percent of corals will die by 2050.
  • Approximately 500 million people worldwide depend upon reefs for food.

In terms of the human cost, coral reefs protect coastlines from the damaging effects of tropical storms and are even providing new sources of medicines for cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

As of June 2017, the Third Global Coral Bleaching Event has most likely ended, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it will remain the longest and most widespread on record.

The documentary won an audience award at the prestigious Sundance Festival.

Local impact

Cayman’s population knows better than most how spectacular coral can be – and how important to the economy. From diving tours to hotels and restaurants, the tourism industry thrives on the health of reef ecosystems.

The Caribbean has experienced prolonged high sea temperatures and bleaching events since 2009. In summer 2015, coral bleaching around Grand Cayman was so bad that a police helicopter crew called the Department of Environment (DOE), and by October, almost 60 per cent of the surveyed corals had changed color. Almost 25 percent of Little Cayman’s corals were affected. Fortunately, storms and high winds brought relief to the reefs and by March of 2016, the color had returned.

“As seen in ‘Chasing Coral’, the stories coral reefs tell require decades of information to decipher,” says Carrie Manfrino, president and director of research at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI). “We are asking the key questions of coral reef survival and are trying to scale up our experiments to understand the key factors that might boost resilience of coral reefs, as climate change continues to be a leading factor in their demise.”

An underwater ‘graveyard’ of bleached coral.

Taking action

There are plenty of simple, everyday actions people can take to help keep our seas healthy. For example, carry a reusable water bottle, keep reusable bags in your car for the grocery store and bring cutlery to work for lunch instead of using plastic.

“Imagine if everyone stopped using plastic bottles, that would stop so much waste from entering the oceans. Become more conscious of all the resources and material things you are consuming,” Henry advises. She teaches about the marine environment here in Cayman, after studying environmental communication at college in the U.S.

People can also get involved in local beach cleanups or join a grassroots group such as Save Cayman, which advocates environmental stewardship and sustainable tourism.

On a larger scale, Henry encourages people to make their voices heard as consumers and voters. “We can demand change from the government. For example, we live in one of the best places on Earth for alternative energy such as solar, water and wind – so let’s use it!

“And if we as consumers refuse to buy certain products, companies will be forced to change them to be more environmentally conscious. Remember, one is only as hopeless as they believe they are.”

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