Beneath the surface
An epic voyage with underwater photographer Cristina Mittermeier
A pioneer of the modern conservation movement, ‘Mitty’ has a love for the oceans, marine life and coastal people that’s the driving force behind punching you in the gut with her images
You can’t just dabble in underwater photography. You really need to throw yourself in.
“I’m an optimist by nature,” says Mexican photographer Cristina Mittermeier. Optimism sometimes feels difficult to sustain in the face of the widespread destruction humans are causing to the planet. But for Mittermeier, there’s no space for complacency or giving up.
A marine biologist, photographer, filmmaker and conservationist – who has almost been eaten by a whale – she works not only to showcase the beauty of the natural world but to move people towards solutions, such as Marine Protected Areas, sustainable fishing and community involvement in coastal management.
Mitty, as she’s also known, is the co-founder, along with partner Paul Nicklen, of SeaLegacy, a content and distribution powerhouse that brings new audiences into the ocean conservation movement and leverages powerful visual stories to move them from apathy to action. She is also the President and co-founder of Only One, a digital action hub for ocean conservation, leveraging high-quality visual and written storytelling content to engage a massive base of supporters and call them to action. She also set up the International League of Conservation Photographers.
Her work appears in international publications, including National Geographic; she has produced several books, including Sublime Nature and Amaze; and is credited for creating the discipline of conservation photography that draws attention to the Earth’s severe environmental change. “All life is tied to healthy ice and we must do everything we can to stop the effects of climate change.”
Hi Cristina. Where did your love of wildlife and the oceans come from?
The original curiosity came from reading books. My family received National Geographic, which was always a great source of wonder. But there was a series of adventure books that my father gave to my older brother by the Italian novelist Emilo Salgari. The descriptions in those books were so vivid and exciting. That’s where the original bug to wander came from.Those books had a lot of female heroes. A lot of young girls grow up with the idea that adventure and exploration isn’t for them. But in my mind, there was never any question that girls could do it.
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You have a Biochemical Engineering in Marine Sciences degree from Mexico’s ITESM University. What made you decide to work to protect the oceans, rather than exploiting them?
When I started my studies, I thought I was going to be swimming with dolphins and whales. But instead I spent a lot of time on fishing boats with industrial fleets in Mexico. I witnessed how industrial fishing is carried out. The scope of death is monumental. Many tons of marine creatures are pulled out every time the nets come up. I remember seeing a net of what should be shrimp, but the vast majority of what the net caught was other stuff: corals, sponges, sea turtles… That’s an enormous price to pay for a shrimp dish: that all these other animals go back into the ocean, dead. I thought “My God, nobody sees this. This is invisible. People are completely unaware of the ecological price for the food we eat.” That was the original spark.
Is underwater photography particularly challenging?
Underwater photography has been the steepest learning curve of my life. Job Number One is to avoid drowning. You need to be an accomplished swimmer, very comfortable in the water, and to intimately understand your equipment before you even consider looking through your viewfinder to make photographs.
My passion for many years was Indigenous people, and it still is. But when I met Paul Nicklen and we started living together, he became my mentor in underwater photography. What a teacher I’ve had. Paul’s one of the best.
Job Number One is to avoid drowning.
What issues are you working on next?
We have to tackle the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate emergency and the ocean is one of the most important solutions. I’ll be focusing my efforts on promoting the acceleration of the creation of Marine Protected Areas, the reform of destructive fisheries and ocean solutions for decarbonisation.
2022 is a very busy year for me as SeaLegacy and Only One gear up to tackle a number of issues. The framework we use for deciding which stories and issues to focus on is based on a scientific paper by Dr. Duarte et al, called ‘Rebuilding Marine Life’, in which the authors postulate it’s possible to restore health and abundance to the ocean in a single generation if we focus efforts on the recovery wedges they identified, which includes protecting more of the ocean, protecting more marine species, stopping the flow of pollution and rethinking how we source food from the ocean.
This year, I’ll be promoting the expansion and creation of new Marine Protected Areas in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, including Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia. These countries are working on the first interconnected network of Marine Protected Areas to protect endangered species. We’ll also be partnering with an Indigenous community off the coast of Panama, the Guna Yala people of the San Blas islands, to upcycle the plastic pollution that litters their archipelago and threatens their way of life.
The vast underwater forests and pastures, including the microscopic pasture we know as plankton, offer a huge solution to climate change. So we’ll also be working with the government of The Bahamas to establish a marketplace for double-certified Blue Carbon Credits based on the protection of the country’s large seagrass beds.
One thing SeaLegacy and Only One really cares about is that we must achieve ocean equity and justice for coastal communities. All the work we do has to be viewed through this lens, to make sure any solutions don’t leave people or the planet behind.
What plans do you have for 2022 to reach more people with your work and messages?
Our sailing catamaran, the SeaLegacy 1, has already started its very ambitious journey around the world to document, share and inspire with stories from every corner of the ocean. The boat will be in Panama, Costa Rica, Galapagos in Ecuador and Baja California in Mexico. Around the end of 2022, you should find us somewhere in French Polynesia.
We must achieve ocean equity and justice for coastal communities.
Which marine creatures do you most enjoy spending time with?
I don’t do much macro photography. That takes a level of patience I don’t have. For me, it’s about the bigger animals: dolphins, mantas, stingrays… Sometimes I have to pinch myself that this is my job. It’s so wonderful and so much fun. But at the same time, I see horrible things: whales that have been hit by ships, sharks that have been finned, sea turtles tangled in debris. There’s a lot of death happening beneath the surface that people don’t see.
As well as oceans, you’ve been photographing the Kayapo tribe in the Brazilian Amazon for many years. Why are you so interested in their story?
The Kayapo was a life-changing opportunity for me to be part of a team that went back to those villages many times. I worked with Conservation International. My intention was always to give a name and a face to people who are facing a struggle. It’s not enough to say Indigenous peoples are suffering. We want to know who these people are. They’re mothers, they’re children, and they’re scared. We have a president in Brazil who has publicly said Indigenous people are no different from animals. He’s on a mission to destroy the Amazon, to industrialise it. He’s a threat not just to Indigenous people but to humanity as a whole.
You mentor young female photographers. What do you try to share with them?
Society and our own parents are still raising girls with the mentality that certain things are not for women, that it’s dangerous, it’s too difficult, it’s not feminine, so don’t do it. My message to young women who want to do the kind of work I do is you have to conquer your fears and you have to silence the voices in your own head telling you that you can’t do it. Ami Vitale, who’s a friend, was certainly an example of someone who was super-introverted, then she picked up a camera and went to a war zone. It’s unbelievable.
For me, the journey was very different. When I follow Paul into the water and it’s full of sharks, or seas are big, dark, scary and cold, I have to ask myself: “Do I want to stay on the boat or do I want to be part of this adventure?” I know that the only way the photos I want to make are going to get made is if I’m willing to be in that uncomfortable moment.
I have to ask myself:
“Do I want to stay on the boat
or do I want to be part of this adventure?”
What advice would you give to other people who want to make a difference in the world?
We’ve built the only.one platform, so people everywhere can take action for our oceans and climate solutions every day. People can visit our website and learn about becoming a digital advocate for solutions. The most important advice I can offer is to not settle into the complacent attitude of thinking our governments and corporations are doing enough. They’re not. It’s our job to be good citizens but only governments can change the infrastructure that can tackle the decarbonisation of our society. So we must continue to use our voices loudly and often, to speak up about the urgency to find climate solutions.
Thank you for speaking to TOPIA and being part of our world of good.
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
What’s so good about this?
The world is facing a crisis in terms of climate change and biodiversity loss. The conservation-focused work of photographers like Cristina Mittermeier is crucial to showing what’s at stake and pointing towards ways we can make changes to slow, halt and even reverse the damage we’re causing. Cristina’s also a force for good when it comes to encouraging more women to make the move into photography, filmmaking and conservation, areas that have historically been male-dominated.
For more of Cristina’s work, see cristinamittermeier.com, sealegacy.org, and only.one, and follow her on Instagram @mitty. @sealegacy and @onlyone. TOPIA Magazine was granted permission to feature photos by Cristina Mittermeier.
Meet the writer
Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist who’s been travelling the world for 20 years reporting stories and photographing wildlife, people and places for international publications including The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Times, New Internationalist, Wanderlust, British Journal of Photography and Digital Camera. He covers subjects ranging from wildlife and conservation to human trafficking. Graeme is also the founder of the award-winning international wildlife conservation initiative, newbig5.com. His first book, The New Big 5: A Global Photography Project For Endangered Wildlife features essays by Jane Goodall, Paula Kahumbu (Wildlife Direct), Wes Sechrest (Re:wild) and more. You can follow his work at graeme-green.com and on Instagram @graeme.green.