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NOVA: Reef Rescue

Focus stacked macro time lapse of Zoanthids opening up.
© BioQuest Studios/NatureFootage
Focus stacked macro time lapse of Zoanthids opening up.

Stream or tune in Wednesday, April 21, 2021 at 9 p.m. & Sunday, April 25 at 2 p.m. on KPBS TV + Monday, April 26 at 7 p.m. on KPBS 2

Follow a group of scientists as they fight to save a precious natural resource, coral reefs. Roughly half of the planet’s coral has been lost and all coral reefs are at risk to disappear completely by the end of the century.

These vital underwater ecosystems are being wiped out by overfishing, pollution, and more catastrophically, rising water temperatures due to climate change. Now, a pioneering group of scientists is taking action to try and save these precious reefs.

NOVA “Reef Rescue” follows these scientists unlocking the secrets of coral evolution that’s unfolded over millions of years and trying to use that knowledge to save the nursery of the ocean. In these desperate times, scientists have begun to explore the revolutionary new approach of assisted evolution, to reproduce super corals that could resurrect dead or dying reefs across the world.


The film features the renowned marine biologist who pioneered this research, Ruth Gates, who as director of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology was one of the most prominent advocates for coral conservation through assisted evolution. “Reef Rescue” includes some of the last footage of Gates who died in 2018.

Remembering coral reef researcher Ruth Gates

Ruth Gates, a renowned coral researcher, died from brain cancer in 2018. Listen as THE WORLD Host Marco Werman speaks to Virginia Weis, a longtime friend, and scientific collaborator, who is remembering Gates. Listen now

Featured along with Gates are Madeleine Van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Science at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; Alannah Vellacott at Coral Vita, in the Bahamas; Julia Baum at the Baum Lab, University of Victoria, in Canada; and Laetitia Hédouin at CRIOBE in French Polynesia. These are the super women of super coral, who along with ecologist Greg Asner and marine biologist Andrew Baker, are racing against time to rescue coral reefs.

Faced with an environmental disaster threatening food security for hundreds of millions of people and irreparably harming ocean ecosystems, these scientists are operating under pressure to take action.


In the Bahamas, Alannah Vellacott is facing the consequences of the losses of coral reefs and the devastation it causes in the communities that rely on them. These dire times are inspiring scientists to examine what the human role should be in not only preventing climate change but helping other species adapt to the environmental changes.

In the case of the corals, this group of scientists had spent years studying the reefs to understand how some are more resilient than others, and learning how that knowledge can save the rest. Scientists are leveraging coral’s natural ability to adapt.

Related: Georgia Tech researchers working with corals in Fiji

Amid the crisis caused by lethal coral bleaching events, scientists are encouraged to find that some assisted evolution appears to be successful. The resilience of super corals creates hope for the future of coral reefs and the oceans.

However, scientists heed the warning that assisted evolution can only postpone the inevitable, and while they might buy more time with these marvels, it’s humans who must adapt and change if corals are to survive.

Filmmaker Quote

“Creating this film, we wanted to capture the hope that there can be for the future of our reefs,” said Su Rynard, director and co-writer. “Corals are magnificent creatures and the time to save them is now. These scientists are courageously intervening to save the reefs we have left. We wanted to explore the role humans will play in the evolution of our surroundings and their adaptation to the changing climate. These scientists give us hope that we can give ourselves more time to help the Earth heal.”

Watch On Your Schedule:

This episode will be available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, for a limited time.

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

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A NOVA production by Merit Motion Pictures, Les Films à Cinq/CAPA PRESSE and ARTE France for GBH Boston in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Vulcan Productions. Produced by Merit Jensen Carr, Sally Blake, and Aaron Floresco. Edited by David McGunigal. Written by Su Rynard and Sally Blake. Directed by Su Rynard. Executive Producers are Merit Jensen Carr, Sally Blake, Rocky Collins, Ruth Johnston, and Paul G. Allen. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt.