Cristina Mittermeier: Commitment to Conservation

The fluke of a humpback whale lifts above the sea in the warm glow of dusk off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. I have followed these giants across the planet as they travel tens of thousands of miles each year between their feeding and breeding grounds. Each sighting is just as exhilarating as the last, and I stood spellbound in the fading light as this titan slipped back beneath the surface in a spectacular dive. Photo by Cristina Mittermeier

It seemed like I knew her before the first time we spoke, such is her presence within the conservation photography community. I certainly knew her images, and her social media posts with insightful captions reveal her deep commitment to ocean ecology issues. She posts an almost daily combination of words and photos so compelling that 1.4 million people follow her work on Instagram, making her the platform’s third-most-followed wildlife photographer, according to statistics database Statista. Her partner in life and adventure, Paul Nicklen, has amassed 6.8 million followers to be Instagram’s most-followed wildlife photographer. Together they are quite the social media powerhouse.

Not so long ago the metric to judge a photographer’s reach was the frequency and circulation of the printed page. While that is still important, social media engagement has become increasingly dominant. In the Fall 2019 issue of Adventure Journal, Mittermeier recounted how they almost casually fell into that space. When asked about growing her following, she answered, “When social media came out, we started posting on Instagram, and nobody had any idea that it was going to become such a big deal.” As she and Paul watched their following increase, they realized that a meaningful purpose behind their captions and photos resonated with more viewers. That was the acorn from which the mighty oak of their nonprofit foundation, SeaLegacy, has grown since its founding in 2014.

A pair of crabeater seals rest on a bed of ice under the Antarctic sun.
I photographed this pair of crabeater seals resting on a bed of ice under the Antarctic sun. A couple of overturned icebergs, whose surfaces display the scars and dimples of a long journey at sea before arriving in this shallow bay, framed the seals, which actually eat krill and not crabs. My SeaLegacy team and I are working to support new marine protected areas for places like this in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Their website,, reflects the conservation consortium Mittermeier and Nicklen have created. Based on three unifying concepts — education, impact media and innovative solutions — and with the intertwined goals of increasing the audience for their message and the amount of funding available to ocean conservation, their modus operandi is to do the following:

• imagine and execute photographic expeditions to document threats to the oceans
• use their media influence to create global campaigns targeted to effecting change
• amplify and fund projects for sustainable improvement to our ocean habitats
• use visual storytelling to stimulate positive change for the issues facing our oceans

Given their expedition ethos, it was appropriate that our interview was via satellite phone while Mittermeier and Nicklen were at sea in the Bahamas on the maiden voyage of their new expedition catamaran, SeaLegacy 1.

An egg-yolk jellyfish with a long trail
I had to consider the foreboding trail of this egg-yolk jellyfish as we glided together through the planktonic cosmos of the Salish Sea. We were swept up in a dance together, both swirling untethered at current’s mercy, while I struggled to adjust my settings and frame the shot against a bosky backdrop. Through my photography I strive to share my love for the peculiar creatures that lurk just off the Pacific Northwest coastline — the wild place that I call home.

Stephen Frink: You were born in Mexico City in 1966 and graduated with a degree in biochemical engineering in marine sciences. Now you are on the deck of a sailing catamaran in the Bahamas. What led you to where you are today?

Cristina Mittermeier: The ocean was not a part of my daily life as a little girl in Mexico City, but somehow the idea of swimming with dolphins had already captured my imagination. The Jacques Cousteau documentaries we watched on TV propelled that enduring fantasy. I remember a day when my father brought home a beautiful coffee-table book about Cousteau’s adventures, but instead of giving it to me, he gave it to my brother. It was painful that my dad had failed to recognize my interest, but my brother soon got bored with it, so it eventually became mine. I pored over every page and imagined myself participating in their voyages of discovery. I still have the book, and it is a constant reminder of my journey to get here.

I had ongoing discussions with my parents in those years; I wanted to become a marine biologist, but my dad wanted me to have a more conventional career. My mother was my champion, and I eventually made my way to university to study fisheries biology. As part of my education, I was an observer on industrial fishing boats. It was my first time seeing the incredible amount of wasteful bycatch from industrial fishing, and I then understood the devastating power of our tools for marine exploitation. Imagine there are 10 pounds of dead sea creatures on the deck for every pound of live shrimp. That sight was profoundly shocking, but it has taken me another 20 years to be able to voice my concerns and do something about it — and it was a circuitous route. The silver lining was that my university education required a comprehensive dive course for graduation, so I have been a diver since 1987.

My next chapter took me to Akumal on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, where I worked as a biologist and diver for a hotel.  When Conservation International launched a program in the Yucatán, they hired me to show them the indigenous wildlife. The organization’s president was Russell Mittermeier, a world-renowned primatologist and herpetologist. One thing led to another; we were married for 20 years and raised three children together before divorcing in 2011, but we’re still colleagues and continue to work together. Another significant change from that era was my move to Washington, D.C., where I gained a front-row seat to how conservation diplomacy works.

Cristina Mittermeier on the beach with her camera gear
When I was a little girl, I lived in Mexico’s mountains, not by the ocean, but I always knew that I wanted to help the natural world and indigenous peoples. I became a marine biologist but soon learned that being a scientist wasn’t how I could best help protect the ocean. I stumbled into photography and realized that I had a talent for it. I could harness visual storytelling to address what was happening to our environment and communities. Since that realization, it has been my mission to tell stories of those who don’t have a voice and to create powerful visuals that turn reaction into action.

Did that make you a city dweller? How did your path to photography evolve?

We lived in the woods on the outskirts of D.C., and I still went on expeditions into remote nature reserves and indigenous communities. I enjoyed the dichotomy of spending time in meetings with scientists and government officials trying to carve out policy and then spending time in the field with photographers and scientists. During this time, I realized that many of the world’s best photographers could not directly access conservation action in the field. They had the magazines they worked for or the stock photos they sold but no means of channeling their passion for conservation into action.

Creating the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) was my attempt to give agency to a collective of creatives supporting conservation through ethical photography and filmmaking. The concept resonated with some of the biggest names in nature photography, including Art Wolfe, James Balog, David Doubilet, Tim Laman, Steve Winter, Thomas Mangelsen, Joel Sartore, Brian Skerry, Thomas Peschak, Nick Nichols, Frans Lanting and, of course, Paul Nicklen, to name a few. They were some of the 40 photographers who became our founding members. These artists were tired of “just” taking pictures and were passionate about a shared vision that images could influence policymaking. Today the ILCP has more than 100 members in more than 20 countries.

An over/under photo showing palm trees topside and a colorful reef and fishes below.
Our oceans brim with a dazzling diversity of life, but nothing compared to what they once held. The deadliest aspect of our climate crisis is the way it creeps across the planet and erases the world beneath our feet. We don’t see it until years later, and we don’t act while it’s still preventable. Extinction is often a slow, quiet process, but there is hope. Healthy reefs act as a buffer between shorelines and storms, shielding communities and saving lives and property from wave and flood damage. If we can dramatically curb our carbon emissions, we will give our ocean a chance to recover.

How did you get started in underwater photography?

By the time I established the ILCP in 2005, I had spent 15 years raising children and had been diving only a few times since I left the Yucatán. I had traveled extensively and was shooting a lot, specializing in cultural stories about indigenous people. Sadly, my initial desire to be a new-generation Cousteau was mostly dormant. Then I met Paul Nicklen. He was my first underwater photography mentor and taught me the basics, loaned me one of his housings and encouraged me to shoot at every opportunity. From him I learned the fundamental premise of underwater photography: First be an extraordinarily capable water person, and then look through a viewfinder. 

Underwater photography is like another language that requires awareness and nuance. Photos are like phrases in that they need proper composition and structure and when properly constructed can be poetic. I was aware and respectful of pioneers and heroes such as David Doubilet but cognizant that not a lot of women were doing this work. I hoped to create images no one had seen before and to do it with a feminine angle, but I also found that I wasn’t interested in macro or action photography.

I want to share the beauty, poetry and mystery of the lives of marine creatures. I am also interested in the relationship between coastal indigenous communities and the ocean. I do as much as 90 percent of my underwater photography while freediving.

A pair of sea lions being playful
During my previous expedition to the Galápagos Islands with SeaLegacy, Paul Nicklen and I spent a day snorkeling just off San Cristóbal Island. We slipped into the chilly waters and immediately drew the attention of a couple of sea lions. The pair raced around me in playful arcs and paused to gaze at their reflections in the protective dome around my lens. Their population now is only a fraction of what it once was due to increased diseases and rising ocean temperatures.

What are your brand preferences for your underwater cameras and housings?

I began my underwater work using a Seacam housing and Canon system that Paul loaned me, but in 2008 I was inducted as a Sony Artisan of Imagery. I now shoot a Sony a7R IV and Sony a9. Both are mirrorless cameras, but I like the a7R IV when I need big files for my fine art and gallery work. The a9 is excellent in the field when I need both speed and performance. I use a Nauticam housing, often with a 28mm lens and a wet/wide lens mounted outside the port. I also shoot with a 12-24mm zoom lens in a Zen dome port with Inon strobes, unless I am doing available-light work with sperm whales or something similar.

One of my first underwater photos is an over/under shot of seagrass. Over/unders are still one of my favorite techniques for storytelling. I think shooting splits is somewhat voyeuristic. People see the surface of the ocean and can only imagine what’s below. I like to reveal the mystery, like the enormous whale shark swimming next to your boat or the huge jellyfish coming too close to you.  

A mother orca and calf
Her soft whistles and clicks — the special language of her family — announced her presence before she broke through the shroud of dark waters. When she finally did, I forgot the sharp chill in my bones from diving in the frigid waters of Norway’s fjords and watched in awe as this mother orca appeared with her calf in tow. This mother trusting me to be around her baby was one of the most memorable moments in my career. I kept perfectly still and felt immense gratitude welling up within me as they drew near.

In your Adventure Journal article, you commented on apocalypse fatigue, something any conservation photographer must face. Is it depressing to be in these wild and beautiful places, yet to understand the pressures they face and how dramatically these issues affect the planet?

Of course, we see awful things: whales that have been hit by ships, turtles tangled in nets, sea birds with their stomachs full of plastic and sharks being finned and thrown overboard while still alive. Paul and I do a lot of work in the polar regions, and the effects of climate change are obvious and alarming. There is so much death happening beneath the surface, out of the view of so many. Yes, I have nightmares about it, but I am generally a positive, solution-oriented person, and I feel my photography can shine a light and make a difference.

We all carry cameras now in our smartphones. People speak photography, so it is a good way to invite people into the conservation conversation. In this conversation we want to show what’s beautiful and special but also what may be in dire peril. Perhaps most significantly, we must show our audience an opportunity to act positively and to hopefully attain a solution. That’s what we want to do with SeaLegacy and now the voyages of SeaLegacy 1. We want to tell stories that inspire, engage and ultimately motivate action.

Instagram: @Mitty
Facebook: @cristinamittermeier

Bahamas great hammerhead barrels through a small school of jacks just to watch them scatter.
This big, confident and beautiful Bahamas great hammerhead is called Queen. I giggled when she barreled through this small school of jacks just for the fun of watching them scatter. Sharks may be the most misunderstood and maligned animals in the world. I hope that my art inspires compassion for them and their underwater ecosystems. We cannot have healthy oceans without sharks, and we must do more to protect them.
Adélie penguins packed against each other on a frozen ledge in Antarctica leap into the water.
I stood in knee-deep water, chilled to the bone but patiently waiting for the first one to go. Carefully assessing the water for the presence of leopard seals, these Adélie penguins packed against each other on a frozen ledge in Antarctica. As soon as the first one decided to jump (or was pushed by the others), the rest followed like dominoes. Adélies pack a lot of charisma into their small frames and are charming to watch.

Explore More

Watch two short videos about Cristina Mittermeier and then see more of her photography in a bonus photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2021