Feb. 22, 2022

Legacy Of The Sea - National Geographic photographer and co-founder of SeaLegacy Cristina Mittermeier on the meaning in telling ocean stories

Legacy Of The Sea - National Geographic photographer and co-founder of SeaLegacy Cristina Mittermeier on the meaning in telling ocean stories

In today's episode, I speak with National Geographic Photographer and marine scientist, Cristina Mittermeier.  

Cristina started her career as a marine biologist but quickly discovered a passion for photography, which in many ways shaped the rest of her life.  She has traveled the world documenting the state of our world’s oceans and was awarded Smithsonian Conservation Photographer of the year, recognized as one of the World’s Top 40 Outdoor photographers by Outdoor magazine, and was named one of the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year in 2018.

Along with her life partner, fellow National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen,  Cristina founded the environmental organization Sea Legacy, dedicated to protecting the world’s ocean through storytelling. 

With Cristina’s full calendar it took time to organize the interview, and we scheduled our recording for late-march 2020, unknowing that a worldwide pandemic was about to hit. 

And even with the world seemingly crashing down around us she spoke honestly about the meaning of being a photographer, why telling marine stories was so important to her, and a day in the Galapagos that encapsulated the entirety of why she gets in the ocean.

Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.

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Jason Elias: (00:09)
Hi and welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people, and in each episode we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with a National Geographic Photographer and Marine Scientist who speaks about the deeper meaning of telling stories of the world's oceans. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.

Jason Elias: (00:51)
In today's episode, I speak with National Geographic Photographer and Marine Scientist, Cristina Mittermeier. Cristina started her career as a marine biologist but quickly discovered a passion for photography, which in many ways shaped the rest of her life. She's traveled the world documenting the state of our world's oceans and was awarded the Smithsonian Conservation Photographer of the Year, recognized as one of the world's top 40 outdoor photographers by Outdoor Magazine, and was named one of the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year in 2018.

Jason Elias: (01:20)
Along with her life partner, fellow National Geographic Photographer Paul Nicklen, Cristina founded the environmental organization SeaLegacy, dedicated to protecting the world's oceans through storytelling. With Cristina's full calendar, it took time to organize the interview and we scheduled our recording for mid-March 2019, unknowing that a worldwide pandemic was about to hit. So as the entire world moved online, the professional audio sites we record this show on all crashed and we were forced to record slightly lower quality than normal. And yet, after listening again to our conversation, Cristina's intellect, humor, and passion for the ocean far outweighed any audio glitches. And she spoke honestly about the meaning of being a photographer, why telling marine stories was so important to her, and a day in the Galapagos that encapsulated the entirety of why she gets in the ocean.

Cristina Mittermeier: (02:07)
My name is Cristina Mittermeier. I am a marine biologist, but I'm also a photographer. And I use storytelling and visual narratives to help people connect to the ocean and to the issues facing not just the ocean, but our planet as a whole.

Jason Elias: (02:21)
Can you talk a bit about where your ocean connection comes from? And how did that lead to the life path you've chosen?

Cristina Mittermeier: (02:31)
I grew up in the mountains in Central Mexico. So my connection to the ocean comes from family trips to the beach when I was a little girl, but also from a series of books that my father gifted my brother and I about pirates and the great adventures they were having at sea. And I think that was my first spark of intrigue and curiosity about the ocean.

Cristina Mittermeier: (02:59)
So I went on to become a marine biologist, and I imagined myself very romantic, swimming with dolphins and whales. But in school, what I learned was fisheries, industrial fishing. You know, these are very, very destructive industrial activities. And the first time that you see those big nets come out and the slaughter of all sorts of marine wildlife, it's a day that really impacts you. And it was impactful for me as a very young university student to witness that and this additional realization that every piece of life on earth is directly connected to oceans and the oxygen they produce, the way they moderate climates, these large, large ecosystems. So that's where it comes from. You know, just a sense of urgency to communicate the importance of the ocean.

Jason Elias: (03:47)
Your work has taken you around the world to document the plight of our world's oceans in stunning ways. And I wonder, do you still believe there's hope? And as a photographer myself, I'm curious what is it about communicating what you have seen to others as opposed to just witnessing it yourself that is so important to you?

Cristina Mittermeier: (04:07)
That's a great question and one that nobody's ever asked me. I don't know where altruism comes from, the sense of personal urgency. And I wish I didn't have it because I think it'd be so much easier to go through life without caring.

Jason Elias: (04:21)

Cristina Mittermeier: (04:21)
But I do care deeply. And I feel that because I understand and I can see the implications, not just for marine wildlife, but for our planet as a whole, that I just have a responsibility. But I do have faith in our ingenuity and our ability to work together. And putting together that narrative so that we can all see hope in the future is very important. And it comes from a number of places. And one is faith in humanity. We have faced catastrophe before, and it's always amazing how humans are capable of turning things on a dime. And I really would like to dream of a better future.

Jason Elias: (04:59)
Well, that's wonderful to hear considering that you've seen more of the world's oceans than many of us ever will. You travel to places that many of us will never go, even those of us that love getting in the ocean. And your photography work is incredible, always beautiful, and often heartbreaking. And in some ways, I see you as a witness to what is happening in the world for the rest of us. What drives you about doing this work, and why does photography play such an important role in the stories you want to tell?

Cristina Mittermeier: (05:34)
Photography does something really amazing. It lowers the price of admission to this type of experience. And people are able to interact with a photograph in a very different way than if you bring somebody to dive. For me, it's about translating an experience that is difficult to understand and making it available to people who might be disconnected or afraid.

Cristina Mittermeier: (06:05)
Your comment earlier about being a witness is so true because it's just this mysterious thing that most people will never experience. The best way to take underwater photographs is by being really calm. If you chase animals underwater, they can swim so much faster than you can. So you develop this patience. You almost float motionless to allow animals to approach you. To make beautiful photographs, you have to get closer to become intimate. And you are bearing witness. And so yes, we do have to travel to very far-off places to bring back the story of what's happening to our oceans. We do have a responsibility to share the wonder and the amazement of underwater life. And that's the biggest gift.

Cristina Mittermeier: (07:04)
Every once in a while, when you find yourself out there floating alone after a dive waiting to be picked up by a dive boat, you can just lose yourself in the vastness of the sea. Looking below your face and knowing that there's 6,000 feet of water below you. Just the wonder of it. What's down there? The mystery, it really is attractive to me.

Jason Elias: (07:40)
Well, that was beautifully told. Moving beyond the camera, you've dedicated your life to sharing stories about the oceans, and I am sure that has changed you. For you, what are the deeper meanings of you getting in the water as a person?

Cristina Mittermeier: (07:56)
That's a great question. There's, of course, much deeper meanings. For me, it really is to be connected to the planet where I live. It's never been about ego and it's never been about competition. And more than anything, the sense of wonder and curiosity is what drives it. But it's a little terrifying. You know, anytime you're diving in such a remote place, of course, you're putting your life at risk. And I don't enjoy being terrified, but I understand that if I'm a little afraid, I'm probably in a very good place to take a good photo.

Cristina Mittermeier: (08:28)
I just think there's a very interesting story in these far-off places that is a little unreachable to most people. When you think about the polar regions and how the story has been told until now, by people like Shackleton and Amundsen, these manly explorers risking their lives to attain something. For me, as a woman, there's a very different story, and it's a story about connection. I love spending time, for example, with the Inuit people up in the high Arctic because they're so connected to the environment they live in. There's not a single moment in their day that they're not thinking about what's happening outdoors with the weather, with the snow, with the sea ice. It is such a direct part of their lives, the story of the connection between wildlife and sea ice.

Cristina Mittermeier: (09:13)
When you look at polar ice and we just think about it as ice, not very different from the one floating in our high bowl. But sea ice is very different because it harbors so much life. So when you dive underneath the ice, you can see it's covered in algae and it's covered in microorganisms. And it's like a little garden that fosters other life, larger animals, krill, or plankton. And you start seeing the connectivity of it all. And it's just a beautiful story. So you have to put yourself out there in those remote, unreachable environments to share something that people don't know about.

Cristina Mittermeier: (09:45)
You know, being a diver, and I've been being diving most of my life, for me, diving was never the thing. You know, I was never to be a diver. For me, diving has not been the end, but just the journey. And it's a tool. It's a tool that I use to do this bigger thing that I want to do, which is to communicate and try to do my best to save our oceans. And it's that connection that I want to share with other people. So being in the ocean always reminds me of my own vulnerability. And so it's very cathartic for me.

Cristina Mittermeier: (10:17)
You know, I recently started freediving and in order to free dive, you have to use the oxygen in your bloodstream really wisely. The largest organ in your entire body is your brain. That's where most of the oxygen gets used up, in feeding this big brain that we have. And so in order to free that, you have to calm your brain down. You have to put it into a meditative state, that it doesn't use up the oxygen in your blood. And to do that, you do deep breathing. And so it really puts you into this meditative state. And I think it's my favorite thing, breathing, meditating, getting ready to free dive. It just feels like you're part of something much bigger than yourself, and I really love that.

Jason Elias: (10:59)
With all your travels around the world, is there one moment underwater that deeply moved you in a way that still means something to you today?

Cristina Mittermeier: (11:19)
There's a different way of thinking about your own mortality when you're underwater and alone. And it recently crystallized for me in an experience I had in the Galapagos. There's a couple of islands way in the northern part of the archipelagos, Darwin and Wolf, that are very remote. And it takes about 18 hours by boat to get there.

Cristina Mittermeier: (11:50)
Once you're there, you're pretty much alone. You know, I like to dive in small groups. I usually dive with my partner, with Paul. So we did probably 20 dives in these two remote islands. And on the very last dive, I was diving with Paul and we were probably at 40 feet. And it was one of those days when you can imagine these big ocean currents crashing against these two islands in the middle of nowhere. The energy of the water crashing onto the rocks creates all these little tiny bubbles. So the water looked white, almost milky. And it was a sunny day. So the light entering the ocean, the milkiness of the water made visibility really difficult.

Cristina Mittermeier: (12:46)
And at the beginning of our dive, I looked behind me there's this massive school of jacks. And so I thought if I just stay still and let the fish come to me, I'm going to get an amazing shot. I sat there motionless, and I pretty soon was enveloped by this large school of jacks. I was thrilled. But the minute I came out of the school, I found myself alone. I couldn't find Paul or our divemaster, and I couldn't see anything, just murky.

Cristina Mittermeier: (13:26)
But I still had over half of my tank. And I thought you know what? I'm not going to abort this dive just because I'm alone. So instead, I just floated, thinking let's see what comes by. And sure enough, I look above me, a large whale shark swimming right above my head. I keep floating around and I see through the murkiness this school of hammerhead sharks, probably 50 of them. It looked like ghosts coming out of the murkiness of the water.

Cristina Mittermeier: (14:03)
And as I start thinking about coming up for my safety dive, a silky shark appears. Then a second one. And pretty soon, I'm surrounded by silky sharks. And I'm thinking now I'm going to have to exist this dive by myself in pretty big seas surrounded by sharks. So it was one of those dives that was just transformational. And it was just great to have it all to myself.

Jason Elias: (14:57)
Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single, open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to. What does the ocean mean to you?

Cristina Mittermeier: (15:07)
The ocean is life really. And being a witness to how much life it harbors, not just in its womb, but the life that it allows to flourish all over the planet, I'm very aware of it and I'm very grateful for what it does. And the other thought is a sadness. Because as somebody who spends a lot of time underwater, I can see what's happening to it. And I mourn for the loss of so many sea creatures that die invisible and quiet, nobody sees what's happening out there. And it makes me deeply, deeply sad. But it also fuels my desire to do more, to bring these ocean voices out to more and more people, and to invite us all to become humans of the ocean.

Jason Elias: (16:00)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep podcast. Next time on Big Deep.

Speaker 3: (16:05)
At one point, I looked up and I saw this school of little silverfish. And I was mesmerized because the sun was coming down through the surface and glittering off of their little bodies and they were moving in unison like by some kind of magic.

Jason Elias: (16:32)
We really appreciate you being on this journey into the Big Deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like and comment because those subscribes, likes, and comments really make a difference. For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos, and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone who you think we should talk to, let us know at our big deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.