News about vanishing coral reefs was part of the story of 2017. Every time I dive a reef, my breath is taken away by the incredible beauty and bewildering diversity of life in the tropical seas. But around the world, corals are now sadly sentinels of ocean change.
Since the 1970s, more than 93 per cent of the extra heat from greenhouse gases has been absorbed by the ocean. To understand how much heat that is, researchers who worked on the amazing Netflix documentary Chasing Coral have suggested that we think of it this way: If the ocean wasn’t absorbing it, average global temperatures on land would be far higher—around 122°F (50 Celsius). Global average surface temperature right now is about 59°F (15 Celsius). A 122°F world, would be unlivable.
So more than 93 per cent of climate change is out of sight and out of mind for most of us, but as the ocean continues to take on all of this heat, it is becoming a real hazard for the majority of life on Earth. Their home, the world’s ocean, is becoming too hot and too acidic to live in. In turn, the risks we are exposing ourselves to as a result, are terrifying.
Chasing Coral is a must-watch documentary for everyone. It is the story of a band of scientists, film-makers and concerned individuals who set out to tell us one story and end up documenting the heart-wrenching death of parts of the Great Barrier Reef. It is a powerful story of the importance of science, the wonders and pitfalls of technology, the opportunities of innovation, and the stories and experiences of each of the people involved.
I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Vevers and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, two of the main characters, when I was in Australia a few years ago while they were making this beautiful film. I had no idea it would end up on a short-list for the Oscars. Jeff Orlowski, the young filmmaker behind the lens (and also on screen) sums it all up very simply: “Coral reefs are the backbone for the entire ocean. They are the nursery for the ocean. About a quarter of all marine life in the ocean spends part of its lifecycle on a coral reef. And there are about a billion or so people that depend on coral reefs for fish for their food, for protein. In 2016, we lost 29 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef because the water was hot.”
My very personal experience of ocean warming came when Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean. It was devastating to life above and beneath the waves. Many of the storm walls that nature built around the Caribbean islands, the coral reefs that protect the land by slowing down the waves rushing for the shore, took a major beating. A Category 5 storm, particularly one as strong as Irma, is generally too much for the reefs, breaking them apart. Runoff from pollutants, nutrients and sediments flowing into the sea from the storm hit the reefs a second time, smothering them. Much of the marine life that these coral cities host are left homeless.
But just as we are seeing the Caribbean rebuild to be more resilient to change, Chasing Coral inspires us to use the opportunity for innovation. At Virgin we are fuelling the transition to clean energy or what the film calls, “the great transformation” through initiatives like Formula E, Virgin Unite and Unite BVI’s support of the world’s first climate-smart zone in the Caribbean, and electric-powered flight.
Even riding out Hurricane Irma didn’t prepare me for the wake-up call that Chasing Coral sends about the loss of coral reefs. It is a beautiful and heart-wrenching reminder of how important the ocean is to all of us, and why the ocean deserves an Oscar.