Cristina Mittermeier Photographs Marine Life to Save It

Cristina Mittermeier knows the power of an image. The marine biologist turned activist is a pioneer of the modern conservation photography movement and a long–time National Geographic photographer based on Vancouver Island. She is also the co–founder of SeaLegacy, a non–profit that uses visual storytelling to influence environmental policy, amplify the work of conservation organizations and create a global movement of people who care about healthy oceans. From the Galápagos Islands to Antarctica and Timor–Leste, she takes her camera beneath the waves to tell stories of vulnerable ecosystems and share actionable solutions.

March 25, 2020
A pair of sea lions in the Galapagos Islands
   Photo: Cristina Mittermeier / @mitty

enRoute What pushed you and your partner, Paul Nicklen, to found SeaLegacy?

Cristina Mittermeier We were on assignment for National Geographic documenting “the blob,” a massive body of warm water that formed off the coast of the Pacific Northwest – it unbalanced the whole ecosystem. Some animals, like sea lions and otters, starved because the fish retreated to deeper, colder water. Others suffered seizures and paralysis because of toxic algae blooms. That’s when I told Paul we needed to do more.

ER What makes photography an effective conservation tool?

CM In order for science to have an impact, you need to make it accessible to policymakers and the general public. Photography is a way of inviting people into a conversation they might not otherwise feel comfortable enough to have. Some images, like the ones we took of an emaciated polar bear in the Canadian Arctic, are a slap in the face and force people to take stock. But we also share stories that celebrate nature and remind people why our planet is worth fighting to protect.

Cristina Mittermeier with her camera on a boat
   Photo: Cristina Mittermeier / @mitty

ER Tell us about a typical SeaLegacy expedition.

CM We have a small team of “Swiss Army Knives,” as Paul calls them. Everybody knows how to do various tasks, from flying the drone to interviewing locals to ensuring the divers make it out of the water alive. I’m often assigned to take split–shots, which simultaneously capture what’s above and beneath the waves. It’s an exercise in frustration because you have two very different exposures. But it’s also amazing because the most interesting subjects are closer to the surface. While photographing humpback whales in the Dominican Republic recently, I realized that if I did a somersault in the water, the whale in front of me would stop and do one too.

ER What’s the secret to photographing wildlife?

CM Animals react to the energy you bring to the encounter. If you’re calm and respectful, there’s a better chance they’ll allow you to get closer. Sometimes it happens right away. A few months ago, in Dominica, a baby sperm whale came right up to Paul and held his arm in its mouth. More often, though, you have to work hard to earn an animal’s trust. But once a female allows you to swim with her pod, you know you’ve been granted access to something remarkable and unforgettable.

Black and white photo of Cristina Mittermeier 40 feet underwater taking a photo of a sleeping sperm whale
   Photo: Cristina Mittermeier / @mitty

ER How has the field changed since you founded the International League of Conservation Photographers in 2005?

CM When I published a peer–reviewed article in the International Journal of Wilderness defining conservation photography as a new discipline, a lot of people tried to poke holes in its distinction from nature photography. But there was also an entire generation of younger photographers who gravitated toward the idea of purpose. Today, you have people like Shawn Heinrichs and Paul Hilton who use their work to change policies on shark finning and the wildlife trade.

ER What’s your favourite spot for underwater photography?

CM Vancouver Island has some of the best cold–water diving in the world, especially on the northern coast. I’m so grateful to live near these special ecosystems teeming with marine life.

See what Cristina packs in her carry–on here.