Cristina Mittermeier Reflects On Her Life Underwater

The ocean churns with life, from the surface we swim on to the deep underwater currents below. Photographer and conservationist Cristina Mittermeier talks about how the ocean powers life on Earth—and how urgently we must protect it.

When I finally got to speak to Cristina Mittermeier, it was a Sunday afternoon. We had spent the whole day arranging and rearranging our meeting—an April snowstorm had knocked out power in her British Columbia home, and she barely had enough service to get a text through. We couldn’t push it to later that week because, the very next day, she was leaving out to sea. 

 

This is usual for Cristina—urgency, being at the mercy of the weather. She is, now, one of the world’s most preeminent underwater photographers. She delivers us evidence of lives we will never live, scenes most will never see: hammerhead sharks drifting along a sandy seafloor; marine iguanas clinging to rocks, teeth bared like real-life dragons; a mobula ray leaping out of the water only to belly-flop back in. To capture these images, she spends weeks at sea, exploring glaciers, mangroves, coral reefs, kelp forests, and shoreline communities. 

 

It is perhaps an unexpected path for Cristina, who grew up in the landlocked, mountainous city of Cuernavaca, Mexico. She met the ocean first not face-to-face but in the pages of her favorite books. She read a lot, and what excited her most was adventure: pirate books, Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic. When her dad first took her to the ocean, she got caught in a huge wave. She tumbled around, swallowed a big mouthful of water. When she finally emerged, she was hooked. 

 

That first hit of adrenaline led to a life lived largely underwater. When she went off to college, she chose to study marine biology. She soon realized, though, that she wanted to do more than understand the ocean. She transitioned to photography, making it her mission to help others see the undersea world. Throughout years of lending her lens to the seas, she has witnessed the threats that the ocean is facing: plastic, warming, acidification, large-scale extraction. Wanting to take more direct action, she founded SeaLegacy, a conservation organization, with her partner Paul Nicklen.

 

We talked for a long time about the joys of diving, the threats facing our planet, and the ocean’s potential to combat climate change. Soon, though, I had to let her go run last-minute errands. The following day, she was off to Baja, Mexico to spend time with the blue whales. “The largest creature that has ever lived on our planet,” she told me, her eyes lighting up. She was going to photograph the creatures but also to help save them. Their massive size, which has protected them from predators for their entire history, may be their downfall: they have never evolved fear. Now, more and more ships have been striking whales in the Gulf of California, she explained breathlessly, and she’s working with shipping companies to adjust their lanes away from where the whales are. 

 

As we wrapped up, she got distracted by the soft afternoon light streaming through her window. She turned her computer so that I could see it too: the sky and the sea both gentle shades of blue, split by rolling islands. The storm had passed, for now. Soon she’d be back out there on a different stretch of ocean, climbing onto a dinghy after hours underwater, soaking wet and smiling, camera in hand.

Madeleine Gregory

Alongside this sense of destruction that I think we have when we look at the world, the ocean specifically still feels like this vast and mysterious place of discovery. We’re still discovering one fish species a week, on average, for example. We talk a lot about knowledge gaps in science, but your work is also seeking to fill emotional gaps by showing people the beauty of life underwater. So I’m curious how, after so many years of working in this field as a photographer, you still experience that sense of discovery.

Cristina Mittermeier

On a good day, when you get in the water, it really feels like you just jumped into a cup full of blue champagne—you know, bubbles everywhere. The ocean and the atmosphere to us feel different because we’re terrestrial, but the atmosphere and the ocean are in this intimate dance that is invisible to us. They are constantly transferring chemicals, biological processes, gasses, and heat. The storms that happen here in the ocean might be triggered by currents that are many, many miles up in the atmosphere. I mean, they’re so intimately related to each other, but we as humans do not understand that. So I often think that when I’m looking at the ocean, I’m looking at the engine that runs this planet.

Madeleine

That reminds me of how people really look at outer space as the frontier of discovery. Whereas the ocean is right here and has just as much mystery.

Cristina

Well, you know, I had dinner with Elon Musk a few weeks ago. He’s a very strange man. But the whole dinner, the only thing he talked about was his SpaceX and how humanity needs to conquer other planets. And I don’t know how much he knows about Earth, but once they go to another planet—because I’m not going—they would have to bring every breath of air, every drop of water, every ounce of soil that a human needs to survive from this planet. And I’m thinking, “Why?” Anyway, I don’t wanna go and I didn’t get a ticket to go, so I’m staying. But I’m sure his spaceship is pretty sophisticated, because it has to carry people for several years to get to Mars. And yet if you peek under the hood of this spaceship, planet Earth, what you would see driving the thing would be the ocean. And we know so little about it.

Madeleine

And for those of us that aren’t underwater photographers, a lot of that remains unseen for our entire lives. Our popular conception of the ocean in movies and TV is this really dark place. So I would love to hear what the experience of light down there is.

Cristina

Humans are pretty fragile creatures and we are only able to dive to about 200 feet. You’re able to do that on scuba, but most of the time, as divers, we spend time on the first 30 to 60 feet where light is because that’s the most interesting part. That’s where most of the stuff that we know about is happening. And it’s so interesting how different being underwater is to being outside. Because first of all, what you get is silence. It’s like your ears become irrelevant and you enter this meditative space because you’re in your own head and your sense of sound is gone. And as you start getting deeper, colors start disappearing because of the way that the water absorbs the different spectra of light.

 

By the time you have reached 15 to 20 feet, everything is blue. And if you keep going further down, it starts getting dark. And by the time you hit 80 to 100 feet, something happens to your brain. The composition of the gasses in your body give you this euphoria, and you feel a little bit like Superman. The deeper you go, the more you get this narcosis. It’s a dangerous place for a diver to be because you get this curiosity about what’s deeper. I wonder what would happen if I just keep going down, down, down. That’s how a lot of people die. You just kind of lose sense of how deep you are. And it just feels so good to be underwater. And then you look up and you can see the surface way up there if it’s a clear body of water. And it feels terrifying just how far down you are.

Madeleine

It’s interesting to hear you talk about humans being fragile creatures, because it feels a lot like connecting to what it’s like to be an animal responding to your environment. Which I think a lot of us feel very disconnected from. There’s a big conversation in environmentalism about connecting to nature as a way to both reaffirm your mission and to feel like you’re part of the world. So do you think this experience of dealing with fear and following your instinct underwater helps you deal with this larger planetary scale fear of where the world is going?

Cristina

I had a revelation recently. I’ve been preparing a talk, and my talks always begin with the experiences I have when I photograph Indigenous people and the things that I was observing and learning from them. There’s a different way of connecting, right? They are more closely in tune with how ecosystems work, but it’s not a superpower. They don’t have any ability that we are lacking, it’s just that they are truly more connected. It’s also a different way of seeing the world. And it dawned on me the other day, you know, most people in the West, we look at the forest and people would say tree, timber, furniture, that’s where you get firewood. And so we have learned to see ecosystems as nouns, the things that they provide. For an Indigenous person, they see ecosystems as verbs. The forest is there not because there’s a tree there but because the sun is shining on it, because the river is flowing through it, because the rain is falling, because the bear is foraging, and because the whole thing works together. So I think we need to start seeing ecosystems more as verbs and less as nouns.

Madeleine

Yes, and that systems approach is also a really intimate relationship with the natural world instead of this divided relationship. And in your work, you take so many photographs that are really intimate portraits of nonhuman life. I wonder what you think that intimacy with other life-forms can tell us about being human.

Cristina

You know, we are the ones who lack the abilities and the senses to understand our world better. Animals are gifted with vastly more instinct and senses than we can even imagine. I went swimming with sperm whales that were diving two kilometers to feed, and they were doing this 20, 30 times in a row, just coming up for a breath and then diving down. Can you imagine going into the deep darkness of the ocean and in the dark finding your prey? The mother sperm whale would come and she would have these tentacles dangling out of her mouth cause she’s feeding on squid. We have never even seen a living squid that size.

Madeleine

One thing I really wanna talk about is the color of corals, because I know that in the natural world color often confers a message: a flower trying to attract a pollinator or a snake warning that it’s toxic. Coral reef ecosystems are some of the most colorful in the ocean, from the coral itself to the tropical fish that live there. What purpose does color serve in coral reefs?

Cristina

It’s funny because we humans do not have the ability to interpret colors in the coral reef, but when you shine ultraviolet light, all of a sudden the reef comes alive—and it is not just color; it’s neon. And it’s not just neon; it’s colors that are oscillating and dancing. And we of course have no understanding of what communication is happening between creatures. But a fish—a fish that looks gray and drab to us—you shine this light on it, and all of a sudden, it’s undulating light and it’s sending signals. There are clams that have electrical pulses going through their tentacles. It’s just like a different dimension that we are just now starting to develop the technological tools to see, let alone understand. But there’s a whole conversation happening of which we are not a part. And it’d be really interesting to know what they’re saying. I’m sure it’s got to do with finding mates, finding food, escaping danger, but we are in the early phase of understanding.

Madeleine

Right. And as you were saying, in terms of seeing the world as verbs, we don’t know the verbs that are happening there.

Cristina

No, we don’t. We kind of know the noun, but not the verbs.

Madeleine

That’s interesting, too, because of how much we place humans at the top of this pyramid of life. But as you’re telling it, there are all these senses, all these experiences that we have just no access to. And these fish, these corals, these algae that we don’t really pay any mind to have access to experiences that we can’t even imagine.

 

Staying on corals, we’ve seen so many photos and stories of these completely white corals that have undergone bleaching, a process in which the coral ejects the algae that lives in its tissues. In this case, the corals are not dead, but the symbiosis that helps it thrive is ruptured, and so it’s much more likely to die. Could you tell us a little bit more about what is threatening corals and how this process of bleaching affects their ability to support life?

Cristina

It really is a love story. But it’s also related to the idea of the “Prism” because corals are some of the most delicate creatures on our planet. They can only live within a very narrow range of temperature and light: make it a little darker, they die. Make it a little hotter, they die. Make it a little colder, they die. They have developed around a belt in the tropics where they can survive. It’s very narrow, and if things change, they’re gone.

 

For corals, there are two kinds of reproduction. Some of them have fertilization where a male and a female put an egg together and they fertilize, but a lot of corals just spit their sperm and their eggs into the water. And to see something like that is incredible. It happens during the full moon: all of a sudden, there’s just like a sea of eggs and sperm, and the babies are these larvae that are free swimming, but they’re blind and they’re microscopic.

 

And so they’re floating in the current anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks, and then they have to find where they’re gonna settle. And how does a tiny larva who cannot see find a place to land in the bottom of the ocean that is the perfect temperature, the perfect amount of light, and has a hard substrate. And there’s competition—she’s not the only one out there. That’s how corals reproduce. It takes a long time for a coral to grow into a tiny polyp, and then to start dividing itself, to create the reef. This is where the love story comes in. Coral has a special guest that lives inside its gut. It’s a tiny little algae called the zooxanthellae. This algae is a plant, so it performs photosynthesis, and the byproduct, which is sugars and nutrients, is what keeps the coral alive. If the coral gets stressed, it pukes its algae, it expels it, and now it has no way to eat. And it’s just a matter of time before it dies. So that’s when you see these bleached coral reefs, and it’s so sad because it’s like a patient in palliative care.

Madeleine

Coral needing this very specific band in the tropics reminds me of our planet being the perfect distance from the sun. We live in this very specific Goldilocks zone, as they say in biology. To hear you talk about the resilience of coral ecosystems makes me wonder if you feel like that can be applied to the world at large, if the world can be as resilient as these coral reef ecosystems.

Cristina

Well, the other reason coral reefs are important is because they are formed of calcareous materials, so they need carbon, they need CO2, to form their skeletons. And so they’re pretty good at absorbing carbon from the ocean. That’s another reason why we should keep them around.

Madeleine

That’s interesting. I don’t think people think of corals as a carbon sink in the way that they think of trees and forests as a carbon sink.

Cristina

We are just beginning to understand this concept of blue carbon a little better, and it is fascinating because it turns out that the ocean absorbs between one third and one fourth of all carbon from the atmosphere. So it’s pretty important. For that reason alone, we should be paying special attention to it, but the ocean as a solution barely gets mentioned in the IPCC report. The ocean performs an incredible service because it also absorbs a lot of the extra heat in the atmosphere. It can only do that if it’s a living ocean. So the idea of blue carbon is the ecosystems, the living creatures that allow the ocean to be a carbon sink.

 

Organisms like seagrass seem pretty humble. But if you think about it, of the 300,000 species of flowering plants on earth, only seven have been able to colonize the ocean. And seagrass is one of those. Seagrasses shoot a rhizome into the soil and that rhizome clones itself and grows laterally to create this very large meadow. If you were to find the original rhizome in a meadow, it could be 200,000 years old. Through photosynthesis, they can take a lot of carbon dioxide out of the water and fix it in the soil where it remains buried for thousands of years safely. Mangroves are able to do the same and they can do it 10 times more efficiently than the Amazon rainforest.

 

So we should be planting mangroves at a rapid rate. And we’re just beginning to understand what scientists call animating the carbon cycle. We think about the carbon cycle as being this dance between the photosynthesis of plants and the atmosphere, but it turns out that wildlife has a very important role to play as well. Whales, for example, were hunted almost to extinction in places like Antarctica. Scientists thought, “Surely, now that the whales have diminished, we’re gonna see a great increase in krill.” But they didn’t. How come? Because plankton need iron to bloom, and iron came from whale poop. Who knew? If we want to have abundance in productivity, we need big animals like whales moving nutrients from the bottom to the surface, and then pooping out fertilizer. If we wanna stay on this planet, we probably need to bring 100 times the number of whales on planet Earth. We should be doing everything in our power to protect them because they are like farmers in the ocean.

Madeleine

I think ocean conservation sometimes gets ignored because many don’t feel connected to it in the way that we do to forests or other terrestrial ecosystems.

Cristina

That’s one of the reasons why I started SeaLegacy. Because I felt like the stories were an important way for people to understand things. People relate to stories. And then we realized that that was not enough. You actually have to get people to take action and to feel a little less disempowered. How are we gonna change this? If we are acting alone, it’s a terrible, terrifying prospect—because you can’t. But if we join our voices and if we get together to demand changes, it becomes really powerful. I do honestly subscribe to the idea that the power of the people is greater than the people in power. And then when government officials receive some million signatures demanding that things change, you know, it’s very difficult to ignore.

Madeleine

Thinking again about the breadth of your experience, your photographs span really every continent and so many subjects from marine life and oceanscapes to people. Has there been an assignment that has really challenged you?

Cristina

There have been a couple. Working in Antarctica in 2017 and just seeing how quickly that landscape is changing. The weather is changing from snow and sleet to rainfall, and as the rain falls over the ice, it melts it even faster. It makes a muddy mess. The baby penguin chicks now get covered in mud, and they freeze because they cannot clean themselves. The number of tourists going to Antarctica now—everybody wants to go, everybody can afford to go. They go on these cruise ships that are going 30, 40 knots right through where whales are feeding. So we have found whales hit by ships again. We’re destroying the very thing that we are there to see.

 

And then the other assignment that was really tough was right off the coast here of British Columbia.

 

The circulation of atmospheric currents really moderates the ocean. And when you don’t get those currents in the atmosphere, if you don’t get the big storms in the winter, the water doesn’t churn itself. The hot water from the top needs to turn over and bring cold water from the bottom. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and the water was seven degrees warmer in some places than it should have been. And so there were toxic algae blooms. Animals were ingesting it and dying of paralytic convulsions. It was horrendous. Ten thousand sea lions died of starvation because the fish don’t like the warm water, so they sink too deep for the sea lion. I mean, it was just horrific. And I remember swimming in a place where the concentration of oxygen in the water was zero and every single creature there was dead.

 

I’m thinking that we have to do more. We have to find a way to convey the urgency of what’s happening, because these are mechanisms that have a positive feedback loop, and they feed on each other. And there’s gonna come a time when we’re not gonna be able to stop it. So I’m gonna make it my mission for the next 10 years to make sure that the IPCC squarely focuses on the ocean as a solution to climate change and that we make every investment possible to protect the engine of our planet.

Madeleine

I know that you moved from science, which is focused on observation and understanding to journalism in order to create more change. But so much of photography is just waiting and watching. You spend so long looking at the heartbreaking scenes of environmental destruction you’ve just described. So how do you personally balance those feelings of observation and action?

Cristina

I really have this strong sense of duty. I often think of my colleagues who are war photographers and the very, very difficult job of being a photographer when what you want to be is human. Sometimes you just have to have that higher sense of duty to tell the stories because somebody has to.

 

I’m very optimistic that things are changing rapidly. Everywhere you look, people are working on different aspects of the problem. There are people who are so laser-focused on finding technological solutions, others that are investing in renewable energy, electrifying the grid. Others, like me, are looking at solutions from nature. I think more and more people are awake to the problem today. I think governments are populated by younger people who want to see change. So there’s a change of the guard. Stories are being told. I have to remain optimistic because I have to.

Madeleine

Finally, how has all this experience underwater changed the way that you see the world?

Cristina

You know, there’s an arrogance of being a terrestrial creature and just assuming that we live on earth when we really live on the ocean. It’s that sense of interconnectedness, that sense of consequence. Everything we do has consequences, and we just reel from colonization and patriarchy. I think that’s the big thing that hopefully I get to see in my lifetime: a shift to a more feminine leadership where we are less conquerors and more stewards. I love seeing that in communities like sperm whales, which are matriarchies. Orcas are matriarchies, many Indigenous communities are matriarchal as well. I’m just glad to be a woman, because you really see the world in a different way. Nothing against men, but they’ve had their chance and we need a more feminine leadership.

 

In matriarchies, there’s so much less aggression and there really is this sense of lifting everybody up and not leaving anybody behind. I think that would be a fresh perspective for this planet. Elon Musk wants to go to Mars because he sees there’s no helping humanity. I refuse to believe that. I think there are a lot of good humans, and I want to believe that we can prevail over the ones who can’t see.

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “Sea Change.”


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