When Zackery Rago first makes an appearance 23 minutes into the new Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, he’s tinkering with a complicated underwater camera built by the Boulder-based company, View Into The Blue, where he works as a technician. The device was created for Exposure Labs, a film crew (also based in Boulder) with the goal of taking timelapse footage of coral reefs to show how they’re turning skeleton white and then dying—in what can only be described as a mass extinction.

With almost shoulder-length blond hair and cargo shorts, Rago looks more like a surfer dude than a geek. Thirty seconds later, though, he starts explaining how excited he is, as a self-described coral nerd, to be working on this project. In case you still weren’t convinced, he then starts pointing at various coral in a small aquarium and identifying them by their scientific names. Oh, yeah. Coral nerd.

Much of the documentary is filtered through Rago’s eyes (although he wasn’t initially supposed to be on camera at all). You feel his love for the unique creatures that are coral reefs, his excitement to interview his childhood idol (one of the preeminent authorities on coral), and his passion at trying to spread awareness that one of the earth’s crucial ecosystems is disappearing. We chatted with Rago about his local connections, his current work, and what he hopes people take away from the beautifully heart-wrenching film.

5280: What got you interested in the ocean, especially considering that you grew up here, in a landlocked state?
Zackery Rago: Both my parents are educators. My mom teaches third grade out in Adams County, and my dad used to teach chemistry and biology, as well as a marine biology elective, at Golden High School. He takes 40 Jeffco students out to Hawaii’s big island every summer, so I tagged along and shadowed high school students. Then I went through the program myself and got scuba certified at 15 or 16 years old, so there were more opportunities to be in the field with marine scientists. I had more access to the ocean than many kids in Colorado might get.

How did you get involved with the Chasing Coral project?
When I was a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder, I had some free time on my hands, so I started interning at a nonprofit in Boulder called Teens4Oceans and a related company called View Into The Blue (VITB). VITB builds underwater webcams and streams them live to the Internet. The company developed unique housing for the underwater cameras—they have windshield wipers that keeps them clean underwater. Jeff Orlowski [the Boulder filmmaker behind Chasing Coral] had started this endeavor to look at corals through timelapse footage and was facing the problem that everything gets dirty in the ocean. Turns out my company and the solution to his problem was right down the street.

We ended up building him a custom camera; within a year, I went out into the field with them. I was never supposed to be on camera, but they enjoyed my story and my love of corals enough to include me.

What specifically fascinates you about corals?
I’ve always been infatuated with things that I think get overlooked. I studied plants in college as well—things that are stationary. Now looking at it, that’s why I fell in love with them. Plants and coral—but particularly coral—are essentially perfect at what they do. To be something stationary, you can’t move, you can’t make a decision like, ‘Oh it’s not working here anymore. We have to go over here.’ You have to be amazingly effective, and coral does so through symbiosis and relationship with this algae that lives in their tissues.

Also their aesthetic beauty. Anyone who’s spent time on a coral reef snorkeling or diving knows they’re just absolutely magic. The colors are indescribable—they really are the quintessential natural beauty in my mind.

You’d never been to the Great Barrier Reef before the film project, but you’d always wanted to go. What was that experience like?
I’ve got a lot of favorite dive sites all over the world, but the GBR’s the crown jewel. Some of the reefs within it that I dove on, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t around anymore. There is some irony there, me wanting to have that experience my entire life, and the reason I ended up going is to document it dying. That’s definitely something on a personal note that I’ve had to grapple with and internally resolve. The best comparison I can make is, especially in Colorado, most of my friends are connected with snowboarding and the mountains. If we didn’t have snow on our mountains anymore, how would that make so many of the people in our state feel? You’d grieve that.

Chasing Coral
When water temperatures rise by a few degrees, coral expel the algae that normally live in their tissues and give them both their color and their nutrients. As a result, they turn white and essentially start to starve. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Going back to your role in the film, what was it like to be such a central character?
The interesting thing with a documentary is the cameras are rolling most of the time. They try to capture as much as they can—there’s no plotline. The story tells itself. After the shooting was done, I had realized that I was on camera a lot, so I knew I’d be in the film, but I didn’t think I’d be one of the main figures. I’m obviously more than thrilled and happy to share my own story if it’s going to impact people around the world, and they can see corals the way I see them. I’ve been so humbled by the experience the past six months and more so even this past week. The outpouring of love and kindness thrown my way has been unbelievable.

You’re now involved full-time with the film’s impact campaign. What are you hoping to accomplish through that?
There’s a screening program—you can come to us and we’ll assist you in hosting a screening anywhere in the world, with guides and social media kits that help you get the most out of the film. We also plan to have educational components in there; we’re still in the development phase of building a real true curriculum, with lesson plans alongside the film, but those should be ready once the fall semester gets into swing. That’s the wide picture. Then the deeper picture is identifying communities throughout the world that might not regularly watch or engage with content like this, to see their opinions and to see what kind of change we can have using the film as a tool in unlikely places.

But the thing that’s interested me personally the most over the past few years is this ability to go into schools and engage kids and get them jazzed about being a scientist. They’re the future—they’re the ones who are going to be handed a crappy plate they had nothing to do with and will be in charge of solving the problems we face today. So if we engage them as soon as possible, giving them tools and assets, and empowering them to be stewards for the world, hopefully we can see some big changes.

What’s your favorite age range to work with?
I really do enjoy working with the younger kids. They are so curious and engage so easily and with so much energy. But the sweet spot is sixth grade through high school. They have the background knowledge and education to start grappling with some of these concepts. They’re at a point in their lives where their voices can be heard, and they should make it heard. In high school, you think you’re kind of meaningless in the grand scheme of things, especially politically, but my job is to make them understand that their voices do matter and giving them the education to be champions for what they believe in.

Is it worth it? Can corals even survive?
Working in this field can be quite depressing; there’s the notion of eco anxiety, and a lot of scientists, myself included, can have really bad days. Corals are in trouble. Basically, no matter what steps we take, for better or for worse, the scientific community essentially believes that we are going to lose 90 percent of coral reefs by 2050 or at least by the end of the century. The thing about the ocean is, the heat and carbon isn’t something that removes itself if we stop today. We’ll still be seeing consequences in marine ecosystems 50 to 100 years from now. Still, corals are great at reproducing; they do it in such a unique and methodical way, that if we protect the right reefs and enough of them, give it 100 years or so and we could get that ecosystem back.

Why should Coloradans care about what happens in the ocean?
Our state is the headwaters for most of America. That water’s always going to end up in the ocean, so what you do here and what you throw into the water matters, whether it’s plastic or pollutants or something nasty you just flushed down the toilet. The decisions that we make here are just as important as the ones being made in Indonesia or Hawaii or the Bahamas. But the choices you make in Boulder are probably going to be different than the ones you make in Colorado Springs or Fort Collins. Every community has different things that are going to work.

Can you give us some examples?
In places like Boulder, so many of their buildings are powered with renewable energy. CU is one of the greenest campuses in the country. So they can start to push further and commit to try and be powered with renewable energy by X percent by X year. In a city like Greeley, which I know nothing about, but I’m assuming probably doesn’t have that same sort of infrastructure already built out, they might say, ‘OK, let’s make this new building LEED certified.’

If you hope that people have one takeaway from the film, what would that be?
This film for us is about more than just coral reefs. Yes, it’s a film about coral bleaching, but there’s a narrative about bigger issues and how we’re going to move forward in a positive manner for the betterment of ourselves. It doesn’t need to be framed as a treehugger, Boulder-esque type issue. This is something that is going to impact us economically; it’s going to impact jobs and national security. Those are big issues. If you frame it that way, it’s important to everybody in this country, no matter what your belief systems are.