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.
Mittermeier is telling this story from the safety of her home in British Columbia. She and Paul returned from the Galapagos two days ago, and in a week’s time, they will be off on another adventure, surveying and capturing the underwater ecosystems off the coast of Mexico. Cristina and her partner Paul are advocates for the ocean, which is why they founded SeaLegacy in 2015. The nonprofit’s mission brings her back to why she picked up a camera in the first place—to show people at home, who may never get in the water, the wonders of the ocean and what the world stands to lose due to climate change, overfishing and industrialization.
“It’s very difficult these days to go to a dive site where everything surprises you,” Mittermeier says. “More and more, where I’m spending time, in places like the Bahamas and Mexico, the reefs are gone, and all the big fish have been taken out. The sharks have been finned, and it feels to those of us who have spent enough time in the oceans, that they are dying.” The pair believe that protecting our waterways can only happen if we can see it, understand it and empathize with it. Their message is perfect for social media—Instagram allows them to present eye-catching photos, and each post comes with a message or factoid about how readers can help conserve the oceans.
“SeaLegacy is an invitation to people who may be working in an office in a city like Atlanta or New York and who aren’t divers and will never enjoy the same adventures you and I have—it’s an invitation to adventure through digital storytelling,” Mittermeier says.
“We want people to come with us and get the thrill of being part of this journey. It’s an invitation to participate in citizen action because our voices individually are not very powerful, but we all know that when we join together, they can be immensely powerful. We dream to build a global movement that gives agency to people to be ocean heroes, who advocate for the ocean with us, and we’ve done several campaigns that prove the point. When you have thousands of people join together to demand or to protest, politicians have to listen, and corporations have to listen.”
The team posts calls to action when major legislation and other decisions are being made that will directly affect the health of the sea and the communities that rely on it. “Science was not the best tool to communicate this to a larger audience because it really doesn’t speak to regular people,” she explains, and Mittermeier should know. She has edited or coauthored more than 20 books. “If you don’t have a scientific background, it’s hard to read scientific papers. Visual communication is a better way of inviting a larger audience into this very important conversation. That’s why I picked up a camera.”
With 1.6 million followers, it seems SeaLegacy’s message is catching on. Mittermeier likes working through the nonprofit because her work has more permanence. As a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, she might spend two years working on a story, and the topic would only be in the public eye for a month—the time the publication was on newsstands. Out of sight and out of mind, Nicklen and Mittermeier thought. They produce work of a similar quality with SeaLegacy, but there is no end date—the internet is, at least in some ways, infinite, so it keeps the conversation going.
For the SeaLegacy team, the goal is to build a global movement of people who are engaged in ocean conservation. The way for people to participate is by joining the movement and becoming “members of the tide”—these people give the nonprofit a small contribution every month to be part of the adventure.
“My intention is to point my camera at the place where the ocean meets the land, where people live,” Mittermeier says. “One billion people live on the edge of the sea, and they are some of the poorest people on the planet. I want to show viewers what it looks like for them when we talk about sea level rise, when we talk about fish being depleted, when we talk about women disempowered to participate equally in fishing.”
SeaLegacy isn’t Mittermeier’s first endeavor of this nature. In 2005, she founded the International League of Conservation Photographers, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that encourages collaboration between nature photographers, conservation partners and the media to explore how visual media can best contribute to impactful science communications and positive conservation outcomes all around the globe.
When things seem grim, what inspires her to keep going is the courage of her subjects. “I’ve met extraordinary people that are willing, in the most courageous and dignified way, to stand up for the things they believe in. You hear the stories of people who have undergone horrendous things and had to sacrifice, and I really have to ask myself, ‘How much am I sacrificing?’ I’ve never been arrested, and I’ve never been in the middle of a protest, but I know people who have. What they’re willing to lose . . . the fact that they’re willing to put it all on the line to make a difference sticks with me.”
Mittemeier is also encouraged by the sisterhood she has with women around the world. “I feel like women carry the burden of environmental disaster—we’re the ones left at home with the children, with crap coming out of the tap, you know? There’s this growing sisterhood around the planet of women wanting to take the reins of the future of the planet, and I think we deserve that chance. We’re going to do it together.”
She sees the work indigenous communities are doing in British Columbia as a perfect example of conservation efforts. “We happen to have some of the most robust indigenous communities I’ve ever visited. A lot of them never really signed agreements with the Canadian government, so they’re still free tribes.”
Mittermeier often shies away from showing the people of those communities in their regalia, but there is a reason for that: “One of the things that I love about photographing indigenous people is that I love photographing them as they are today, not as we imagine to be, covered in feathers or head paint. I don’t think what we wear necessarily defines who we are, and a lot of indigenous people are very true to their culture, their language, their traditions and the ways of some of their elders.
“They look just like you and me,” she insists. “They go to university, they work in banks, you know? I like that dichotomy, that narrative, but when it comes to the relationship that they have with the ocean, because people among them have been well educated, they’re lawyers . . . they are incredible advocates for their own rights.”
Since she was a young girl, Mittermeier knew that she wanted to work in nature. Born in Mexico City, for the first 10 years of her life her interactions with the outdoors were limited. That changed when her family relocated to Cuernavaca, the capital of the Mexican state of Morelos.
She marvels at how much the place has changed since she was a child: “When I was young, it was very quaint, but it’s now very big.” Back then, the area was more rural, and she had the chance to interact with cows and donkeys. “I think that we are all born with an innate love for nature, and society and our parents kill it in so many of us—our parents teach us to be afraid of animals and ‘icked out.’ I was lucky because my parents didn’t. I was allowed to get dirty and play with animals, so I think I was one of the lucky people who didn’t have that love of nature squashed.”
Fascinated by Jacques Cousteau’s portrayal of the underwater world in his films, she attended the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, where she earned her undergraduate degree in marine biology. Her work as a marine biologist forced her to witness the carnage happening beneath the waves. Whales were dying with stomachs full of plastic. Sharks would be harvested for their fins and then thrown back into the ocean, and without the ability to swim, they would drown. Statistics and studies weren’t getting the world’s attention, so she picked up a camera.
“My sense of storytelling is hugely inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—in particular by the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech,” she says. “I think about the planet I want to live in, and I want to leave it for my children. Dr. King took us on this journey of what can happen if we work hard and come together and get to this place and achieve this grandiose dream …right now, we’re in the pits, and we have to balance the realities and the hopes. I think it works for people, and that’s the kind of storytelling that I have embraced.”
Mittermeier admits that there are moments when things don’t go according to plan, and she and her team have to adjust. “I think it goes with the nature of being a photographer, that 99 percent of what you do is fail,” she says with a laugh. “It’s so difficult for animals to show up, for the light to be right, for the equipment to be working properly. So much of the time things aren’t working well.”
Her recent trip to the Galapagos had another moment like that, but this time it didn’t involve sharks. “On my day off, I went diving with my cameras. I said to Paul, ‘Where are my strobes, my underwater lights?’ We forgot them. Initially, I was pissed that I didn’t have all my equipment, but I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll see what I can do with this.’ I think that I made one of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever made of a turtle swimming through a school of fish just by forcing myself to kind of embrace this adverse moment and turn it into something positive. That’s just attitude, right?”
These little moments of wonder keep her in the water, her lens trained on signs of hope. Her latest book, Amaze, includes a series called “The Water’s Edge,” which documents this need for balance: the give-and-take between humans and the ocean, the moments of awe that pepper the predictability of life. “My main goal is for all of humanity to understand that we are all ocean creatures, whether we know how to swim or not.”