Always chasing coral
Zack Rago’s childhood hobby of collecting corals has evolved into a life-long commitment to ocean conservation.
A self-proclaimed 'Coral Nerd'
In 2017, Zack Rago shot to fame as the star of the acclaimed documentary, Chasing Coral. The film documents the rapid disappearance of coral reefs. Using specially designed time-lapse cameras, Chasing Coral captures the elusive event of coral bleaching on a scale never-seen-before. The film alerts audiences to the devastation occurring on reefs the world over. Through his passionate and emotional connections with corals, the self-proclaimed, ‘Coral Nerd,’ is much-loved by audiences around the world. For Zack, his fascination with the complex life of corals has been an obsession from a young age, that began well-before the film.
Growing up in Colorado – a land-locked state in the US – Zack’s passion for the ocean would never have materialised if it weren’t for his Dad. As an educator, every summer, Zack’s Dad would take him along on an ocean science excursion to Hawaii, ‘That opened the door to my interest in nature. I fell in love with ocean science and never looked back.’
Zack collecting coral samples. Photograph: Zack Rago.
The cryptic nature of corals
Exposed to an ocean brimming with intriguing animals, Zack traces his particular fascination with corals back to a childhood pastime, ‘I loved thumbing through books trying to work out the scientific names for things.’ Zack elaborates, ‘With corals, it’s not as straightforward as grabbing a book. I think what got me interested is that corals can be very cryptic and hard to understand’. Although they may look like plants, corals are, in fact, incredibly complex animals, made up of marine invertebrates called polyps. When clustered together, polyps form coral reefs, which are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
Witnessing the destruction of an ecosystem
Over the years, Zack’s interest in corals continued to grow. Aged 13, he started building an impressive personal collection of corals, growing them in small aquariums at home. Later, while studying for a degree in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology, Zack developed his passion by working in the aquarium industry. ‘The aquarium world is where my interest in corals became deeper.’ Zack built coral reefs in large public aquariums for nearly ten years, ‘I think this experience probably did more for me in my life than anything else,’ he says.
In 2016, whilst working on Chasing Coral, Zack witnessed the mass coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. Coral bleaching is a stress reaction where corals expel the algae that live inside their tissues, causing them to lose their vibrant colours and turn a ghostly white. Bleaching is a symptom of the ocean warming, with the corals eventually dying if the algae loss is prolonged. In 2016, 30% of the corals that form Australia’s Great Barrier Reef became bleached. The following year, another 20% died completely. Despite Zack having studied coral bleaching previously, he was taken aback by how much the event affected him. ‘I was heartbroken for this beautiful ecosystem, seeing it get destroyed in front of my eyes,’ he says.
First image: A healthy coral reef. Second image: Bleached and decaying corals. Photographs: Zack Rago.
“I was heartbroken for this beautiful ecosystem, seeing it get destroyed in front of my eyes.”
Energising the next generation
Experiencing the bleaching first-hand, Zack felt a sense of responsibility to communicate what was happening to the general public. With a renewed sense of purpose, Zack worked with Chasing Coral’s follow-up impact team for two years. ‘My role was focused on youth education, injecting the film into the right places to get our youth engaged’, he says. Getting young people engaged and excited about science something that Zack is hugely passionate about, ‘We’re all curious as young people, but our education systems tend to strip kids of their curiosity, and I think holding on to it is so important’. Zack is an advocate for experiential learning, ‘Get kids out in the field, let them use their hands and explore on their own. Let them ask better questions because then you’re going to cultivate the next generation of critical thinkers.’
Back to the lab
In 2020, having finished his work on Chasing Coral, Zack relocated to Hawaii to begin a Ph.D. at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. He believes his involvement with the film taught him the importance of activism, ‘I think activism is critical. I certainly consider myself an activist for the ocean. We can all make a difference in our own lives.’ For now, Zack’s back in the lab, dedicating himself to using ocean science to find solutions for protecting and restoring our most precious resource.