Cristina Mittermeier is a National Geographic photographer. (Photo courtesy of Anna Heupel)
Carnegie Mellon University

Marine life photographer Cristina Mittermeier protects our ‘blue gold’ oceans

Earth is a blue marble because over 70% of the planet is covered in oceans. Oceans sustain life as we know it, drive the world’s climate patterns, provide humans with natural resources and shaping many of nature’s most magnificent wonders.

Yet, human activity is altering the oceans’ ecosystems in more ways than one. There are more obvious ones, such as overfishing. But there are also less visible ones such as the changes in the long term chemical and biological processes in the ocean associated with climate change.

For National Geographic photographer Cristina Mittermeier, protecting the blue in our blue marble of a world has become her life’s work. Born in Mexico City as Cristina Goettsch, she migrated to the United States and eventually to Vancouver Island where she now resides in the forest near the Salish Sea. Mittermeier always had a passion for conservation in her blood, she said. 

Given that she’s a well-known photographer, it might surprise you to know that she got her start in professional photography fairly late in life. A marine biologist by training, she didn’t pick up a professional camera until after the birth of her youngest child. Soon, she found that the power of photography to connect to people was her key to protecting the oceans.

Contributing beautiful photographs to National Geographic isn’t the only way Mittermeier is raising awareness about the plight of our oceans. She founded the International League of Conservation Photographers, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting conservation through ethical photography and filmmaking.

In 2014, after an assignment photographing animals killed by unusually warm ocean water in the Pacific Northwest, she and her husband, fellow National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, co-founded SeaLegacy, a nonprofit dedicated to using the power of stories to inspire greater love for nature and build an online movement to protect oceans.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she launched an Instagram initiative called #OceanSchool to educate the next generation about the wonder of our oceans so that they will learn to cherish it. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Though her wildlife shots are magnificent, she wants us to know that they come with long hours of effort and a very high failure rate.

“I should show you all the bad pictures I take. For every beautiful one there’s probably a thousand that are poor,” she said.

Wildlife photography is not for the impatient. It is up to the animals to let the photographer into their world, and how close. She recalled how she and Nicklen spent two weeks in the Dominican Republic trying to get a good shot of a mother and baby humpback whale duo. They faced many obstacles — poor weather, low visibility, shy animals — and they never got the shot they desired.

Despite the difficult work involved in wildlife photography, the rewards are priceless and are not just reflected in the quality of the photographs.

Mittermeier recalls a beautiful memory from Dominica, where she and Nicklen were diving with sperm whales. Sperm whales dive to immense depths in search of food, and while mothers do this the baby sperm whales are left with a babysitter closer to the surface.

She and Nicklen had found a babysitter and baby duo, and while the babysitter whale was napping, the baby was wide awake and wanting to play. The toothless but massive baby found Nicklen and started chewing on his arm and leg, playing with him. 

“I could hear Paul laughing!” she remembered. “I’m trying to take pictures of this whole encounter and Paul is like ‘you have to get in here, come and play with this baby!’” 

Reflecting on this encounter, she is grateful that she can be a messenger for nature, to translate the wonder for others who will never get to experience anything like this. 

Another major theme of her work as a nature photographer is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, showcasing indigenous populations. 

“When I started my career as a nature photographer I thought I was going to be focusing on wildlife,” she reflected. “It didn’t take me a long time to realize that there is a deep connection between indigenous people and nature.”

Indigenous people, who make up just 5% of the global population, protect about 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity. As she spent more time with indigenous tribes and soaked up more knowledge about their worldviews, she started finding that these natives were, as she put it, “probably the last people on this planet who are still connected to the operating system of Earth.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

She harbors deep respect for not just the connectedness of these natives to the land, but also the indigenous elders’ wisdom. For example, in many tribes, wealth is measured not by the amount one owns, but by what one gives back to the community — an antithesis to the capitalistic notion in modern society of defining success by the amount of property one owns and consumes.

“I think that’s a good lesson for all of humanity,” she insisted. 

Of course, being a conservation photographer, one of her goals is to get people to understand the impact of climate change on the entire world and to inspire more action to protect the planet. 

Mittermeier sees the COVID-19 pandemic and the US response to it as a perfect analogy for climate change denial. She points out that both climate change and COVID-19 are equalizers in the sense that both are global threats that do not see the boundaries of race, country, or social class. 

While she understands that people want to deny psychologically uncomfortable truths such as climate change or the threat posed by COVID-19, whether out of fear or simply the desire to go about business as usual, she sees with clarity the danger of being unprepared. 

“[Most companies] don’t have a plan for what’s going to happen if the Earth warms to 3 degrees,” she pointed out, even as they have contingency plans for other types of disasters. 

She is also not shy to call out political leaders for not taking coming threats seriously. 

“President Trump thought that just getting in front of the press and denying that the coronavirus was a big issue would be sufficient to make it go away, but it didn’t go away,” she said, which has made the US underprepared to deal with the pandemic. 

Mittermeier understands the threat of climate change better than many. While there are more obvious signs of climate change, such as the worsening severity of natural disasters, for her, it’s “the invisible [effects that] are the … scariest ones.”

As just one example, ice at the poles is melting not just from the surface, but also from underneath. Thus, freshwater streams are pouring into the ocean and changing its salinity.

This has a cascading effect on worldwide ecosystems, from the invasion of sargassum weed in the Caribbean to the fact that over 100 gray whales have died off of the Pacific Northwest coast due to the lack of krill in less salty ocean water.

Scientists also currently don’t understand the minutiae of these changes very well, which she compares to the danger of flying in a spaceship and making significant changes to it without fully knowing how the systems work. 

“This planet is our spaceship,” she said. “We’re traveling across the universe on Earth, and we know very little about it, so that’s dangerous.”

In that vein, she wants her photographs to “incite curiosity and respect and the desire to understand our planet better.”

Though the story of climate change often is one of greed and disregard for other lives, Mittermeier finds hope in seeing people care about the issues. Her own work with SeaLegacy to build a movement provides a window into this.

“Humanity’s capable of turning things around when we become a cohesive unit,” she said. “To create a movement, you don’t need 100% of the population to be engaged and participating. Social science tells us that we only need 3.5% of the population to create a movement.”

Although not all of us have 1.4 million Instagram followers like she does, she says this is no impediment for anyone to become a part of this movement. Indeed, anyone is already a part of the movement as long as they care.  

She is very hopeful for the younger generation, whom she believes will do things differently once they get into the halls of power as they grew up in the shadow of issues like climate change. 

“I just see how people in [the younger] generation are much more aware, much better educated, and coming up to positions of power where [they] are going to be able to change the mistakes that [the older generation made],” she said. These would include “[changing] the economic models so that capitalism doesn’t leave so many people behind, [and] so that capitalism doesn’t rape and pillage mother nature without investing in making it sustainable.”

She has a strong call to action for the world, and for young people in particular. 

“You, young people, you have to be smarter than we were,” she said.

If you would like to check out more of Cristina’s work, follow her on Instagram @mitty. If you would like to check out more of SeaLegacy’s content, follow them on Instagram @sealegacy.