Zack Rago: Inspiring a new generation of coral chasers

Featured in the latest Netflix sensation, Chasing Coral, Zack goes deep into the issue of coral bleaching.

by Julia Migne 

chasing-coral-Netflix INKLINE
© Chasing Coral/Netflix

With coral reefs around the world vanishing at an unprecedented rate, an incredible team of divers, scientists and photographers decided to set out on what Netflix describes as “a thrilling ocean adventure to discover why and to reveal the underwater mystery to the world”.  Corals are key ecosystems despite covering only 0.1% of the world’s ocean floor primarily because they help support up to 25% of all marine species.

The new phenomenon of global coral bleaching events, known to be caused by global warming, is threatening these unique ecosystems. The team behind the new Netflix documentary Chasing Coral went to great lengths to document the death of the precious reefs.

Featured in the film and described as a Coral nerd, Zack Rago developed a passion for the oceanic world at an early age despite living in Colorado. Far from the coast, the young Zack got his first exposure to the ocean by accompanying his dad who was taking his high school students to marine biology trips to Hawaii. Getting a chance to see coral reefs was all Zack needed to fall in love with those incredible ecosystems, which prompted him even further to study a degree in evolutionary biology and ecology.

Zack talks to INKLINE about the new Netflix sensation Chasing Coral and as well as his hopes for the future of corals around the world.

INKLINE: How did you get involved in the production of Chasing Coral? 

Zack Rago: After graduating, I started working for the non-profit Teens4Oceans and for the company View Into The Blue, which ultimately got involved with the production of Chasing Coral through designing the underwater time-lapse cameras that can be seen in the film.

Initially, my team designed the time-lapse camera and they hired me as a field technician. I was never supposed to be on camera! But the producer enjoyed my story and my love for coral, so they decided to include me in the film. I ended up travelling the world with them, and in one way or another, ended up being a character.


I: Filming a global coral bleaching event had never been done before, how did you go about it as a team?

Z: That was super interesting. The company View Into the Blue had actually built the housing for a different type of camera. Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Coral’s producer, reached out to us, and it took us about six months to build a customised housing that will get the Lumix GX4 in. This was ultimately used to shoot multiple times throughout the day.

Originally, we caught a few snags because of some of the decisions we made, but we finally decided to do the time-lapses by hand [instead of using the housed cameras]. But half of the fun for me making the film was that you’re always running into issues and problems, but you’re out in the field or out on a boat, and you just have to wing it and find a creative solution to make things happen.

I: The process you’ve been through filming coral reefs dying has been extremely emotional. How did you manage to stay upbeat and optimistic?

Z: I think the optimism definitely comes with just where we are globally at the moment. There is a lot of excitement, urgency, and enthusiasm to work in the environmental field. There is more activism going on at the grassroots level so that gives me hope that we are going to solve some of the larger problems that we face as a planet.

That being said, going down every day and having to document the death of something that I personally feel extremely connected with was no easy task. It can be quite frustrating, even quite depressing at times, to put yourself in that position but the optimism also comes from the possibility to capture something and share it with the public in a powerful way. To share the story of an underwater world that is largely out of sight and out of mind – that gives you that energy, that gives you that optimism to say that we are doing something that is bigger than ourselves here. We’re trying to give the coral reefs a voice that they don’t have on their own.

I: What did you want to achieve as a team through the realisation of the film? 

Z: The film could have been a lot sadder and a lot more depressing. There is plenty of things going on in the ocean that can be really daunting and scary to think about, which can make you feel hopeless. We went out of our way and we purposely focussed on putting a positive spin on it.

We wanted to give people hope because what is the point of people walking out of a theatre feeling like they can’t do anything? This is an opportunity for people to stand up and fight for natural resources or natural places that they love, and in doing so, they would be able to create a productive future – not only smarter for the planet but also beneficial to us as humans.

We made the film as apolitical as we could because there is a lot of divisiveness on the topic and yet I don’t know anybody that’s anti-ocean, if you see what I mean? We simply just have to communicate to each other in a more polite way and just have a conversation rather than an argument.

Our goal with the film is to take it wide and to take it deep into communities that we feel don’t regularly engage with that type of content. Hopefully, through that human story and through the emotional context that is provided, we can catch people’s hearts and at least start the conversation. That’s really important to show what each and one of us can do locally. We hope that the film can be a tool and an asset to engage that conversation and hopefully see some progress happening at the grassroots level all over the world.

I: How do you actually engage with the younger generations in your job?

Z: I’m trying to connect with students who are being given the issue and have no option than to solve it. That being said, you can’t walk into a classroom and give kids more school. They want something new, different, and engaging, and I think the virtual reality and all the technological abilities that we have now are really exciting and can allow us to really make a splash with students around the world.

And then obviously there is Richard Vevers’ [founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency] new programme 50 reefs. This is a 3D mapping of coral reefs around the world for scientific survey purposes, which is then reframed into the classroom or into a conference, allowing people that may not have the opportunity to spend time in the ocean to go on a virtual dive and to engage with marine life without even getting wet.

I: What do you think of all the new technologies that are being developed to save coral reefs? 

Z: There is a lot of exciting things going on in the field right now. There are restorations projects all over the world, which do a fair amount of good. People like Ruth Gates are producing corals and then replanting them on reefs. They are also looking at what strains and what breeds of coral are bearing the best, and even within a species, what genotypes are allowing corals to do better during a thermal stress event – that’s really exciting.

We learn a great deal from those restoration projects but at the end of the day, it’s probably not a solution for saving coral reefs. It’s definitely a big part but we’re never going to replant the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a combination of stabilising climate and reducing our emissions while learning as much as we can about these corals that might survive.

Coral Environment INKLINE

I: What’s your advice to the new generation of science enthusiasts? 

Z: I started this journey as a kid who was curious. I loved coral and I basically learnt as much as I could about them and got involved because it was a hobby of mine. I just really enjoyed it. The most important thing for the next generation is to not let anything or anybody deter you from what your passion is about. Whatever your passion is about, there is a way for you to engage with what is meaningful to you and what you care about.

We need more scientists and science is incredible because it takes you to some of the most amazing places in the world to do exactly what you love – and that’s finding out more about whatever you’re curious about. The one thing that I would say is just hold on to that curiosity and hold on to that passion because good passion means good work and good work is what’s gonna change the world.

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