By Latria Graham
It is morning in the Galapagos Islands, and Cristina Mittermeier’s underwater world is full of life. A school of jack fish swim past her, mouths open, and the seasoned underwater explorer and National Geographic photographer gives chase, knowing the reflection of light off of their bodies will make a beautiful photo.
Later, a gam of hammerhead sharks comes by, and she spends all of her energy snapping and swimming, hoping she is capturing the agility and grace of the life swirling past her. Lost in her work, she forgets about her buoyancy and the current. When she looks up from her camera’s viewfinder, she is alone. Her partner, Paul Nicklen, and the other dive masters he started this dive session with are obscured from her view, the murky white water challenging her vision. “It was like swimming through milk,” she explains. With 30 years of diving experience, she completes her work and makes preparations to surface so that she can wait for the rest of her team.
A shark swims up beside her, curious about this other being in the water, and starts circling her position. After seeing and swimming with sharks for decades, she knows there is little to fear and believes her inquisitive friend to be the least of her worries. “It was just one of those silky sharks,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone, as if she were describing an ordinary goldfish instead of a 420-pound creature of the sea. When he initially approaches, she is excited, searching for the best way to capture the way his fins glint in the light. Eventually, she scares him away with her camera rig. Undeterred, he returns with another shark, and soon, there are three of them swimming around Cristina. The photos she took from that session give the viewer the impression of being lost in the ocean. “I’m in the middle of a school of sharks, and I say to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I’m just a kid from Mexico.” Cristina chuckles.