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Zack Rago, who started his first aquarium at age 13, has kept as many as 75 coral species at a time. His knowledge proved valuable when he worked as a camera technician for the film Chasing Coral. (photo by Shannon Burgert)

Documenting the Disaster Down Under

By Shannon Burgert

When Zack Rago signed on as a camera technician for the documentary Chasing Coral, he had no idea he’d wind up as a key member of the cast. “I never anticipated I’d be on the big screen. It’s not what I signed up for,” he says, laughing.

At the time, the filmmakers weren’t aware of Rago’s lifelong obsession with coral. “I’m a coral nerd,” he says. That’s putting it lightly.

Rago, who grew up in Arvada, got to tag along with his dad, a high school assistant principal, as he took students on field trips every summer to Hawaii’s Big Island, snorkeling and tide-pooling and falling in love with the diversity of the ocean. Rago started his first fish tank (with corals, of course) at 13, and he delighted in the conundrum that corals pose taxonomically. In high school he began to raise corals at a marine aquarium shop.

‘It’s about stepping up to protect what we can while we can.’

Rago, 24, received his degree in evolutionary biology and ecology from the University of Colorado Boulder, all the while working for the shop. “I had my own little laboratory with any coral species in the world that you could imagine, at my fingertips,” he says.

So when Rago ended up on the film crew for Chasing Coral as a camera technician, his extensive knowledge became useful, and his passion became a compelling part of the documentary. (Rago also got to dive with his childhood hero, Dr. Charlie Veron, who discovered more than 20 percent of the world’s known corals.)

Caring for Coral

Rago’s obsession with coral made the job of documenting its demise that much harder. “As a kid, it was my dream to be on the Great Barrier Reef,” he says. But there he was, at the crown jewel of coral reefs, knowing none of it was likely to survive. Although he felt helpless as he filmed underwater, his passion for corals and telling the story kept him motivated. “I still wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he says. Less than 1 percent of the world’s population gets to go underwater and see the complex ecosystems of coral reefs.

“But I don’t think this film is directly about coral reefs,” says Rago. “It’s about the bigger issue [global warming], and it’s about stepping up to protect what we can while we can. And if it happens to be that we can’t do that in a timely fashion and we do lose coral reefs, hopefully we have the courage and the knowledge to be able to step up for the next ecosystem.”

So, in addition to his work building camera systems for the Boulder company View Into The Blue, Rago drives the Teens4Oceans school bus-cum-coral reef. Equipped with sand, a hammock and virtual-reality technology, it’s an education campaign to nurture young stewards of the ocean—and maybe a few more coral nerds.

Rago estimates that at his peak he had 75 species of coral at his Boulder home. Since he now travels frequently to install and maintain camera systems (and promote Chasing Coral), his current collection of about 30 corals resides in his office, where it’s easier to recruit coral sitters. His collection includes one coral that has been placed on the threatened-species list since he acquired it.

With an aquarium full of corals, Rago says he is replicating the most complex ecosystem on the planet. As for the work that goes into caring for coral—he even produces his own fresh water through reverse osmosis—he says, “The best way to put it is, it’s much, much more difficult and time-consuming than a dog.”