‘Reef Rescue’ doc details oceanic crisis, possible recovery

New episode of ‘The Nature of Things’ a must watch

Image provided by Merit Motion Pictures

The seriousness of the documentary’s subject matter is emphasized by the opening’s intense orchestral music.

Reef Rescue, the latest documentary from The Nature of Things, debuting March 6 on CBC, feels like marine biologists’ final diagnosis of our warming oceans and the impact of climate change.

“If climate change is still ongoing past 2100, then nothing we’re doing is going to help solve that,” University of Miami associate professor Andrew Baker says in the film.

In the meantime, and with the hope that humanity finally takes global warming seriously, marine scientists are putting old science fiction tropes to good use. In a Frankensteinian approach, scientists are using “assisted evolution” to help strengthen the ability of corals to resist heating oceans.

Assisted evolution is the process by which scientists are lab-breeding coral hybrids, crossbreeding corals that have survived oceanic heat waves. However, these hybrids are not detrimental to human survival, they’re crucial.

The film is narrated by Canada’s environmental darling himself, David Suzuki, who describes in simple language what coral is, why humans need coral reefs to survive and how marine scientists are making corals stronger and more heat resistant.

Coral is an animal that survives by feeding off microscopic zooplankton and the sugars produced by their symbiotic algae.

The “bleached” shell of coral is the “skeletal” structure of the organism. Corals have been around for 500 million years and are masters of adaptation.

However, when the ocean heats up too rapidly — which is the current global crisis — the algae inside corals produce toxic molecules. The corals then expel the algae, leading to starvation with the loss of their primary energy source.

Coral deaths are globally detrimental because corals and the reefs they build support a quarter of Earth’s marine life.

Moreover, one third of all fish species spend part of their lives on the coral reefs.

Coral reefs also act as natural breakwaters for storms. In the documentary, scientists explain that places like Florida would be even more devastated by seasonal hurricanes if the reefs did not slow down wave energy. With the ice caps melting and the ocean levels rising, reefs become even more important in humanity’s fight for survival.

The documentary emphasizes how humans must collectively and immediately act to combat climate change, and what scientists are doing in the meantime in hopes of revitalizing oceanic ecosystems.

Canadian marine biologist and associate professor at the University of Victoria Julia Baum is a leading figure amongst these scientists. Working with the largest land mass in the world made entirely of corals — Kiritimati, or Christmas Island — Baum and her team take stock of the reefs, tagging corals and studying how the most resistant corals survive oceanic heat waves.

Truly chock-full of educational information, Reef Rescue is a must watch in order to understand how climate change is affecting the entire world, and how the science to keep up with global warming events is desperate enough to use methods found in science fiction.

With 50 per cent of the Earth’s coral having been lost in the last 30 years, assisted evolution seems like the necessary antidote to the ever-growing coral crisis.


Reef Rescue premiers on CBC March 6 at 9 p.m. and is available to watch free on CBC Gem.