Cristina Mittermeier has felt a strong pull to the water's edge since she was a little girl. Where the rocks meet the shore and the waves crash about, spraying salt and pebbles into the depths, this is where Mittermeier, now a well-known photographer and conservationist, feels at home. As a child, her sense of adventure led her to explore and develop a close relationship with nature. Now, Mittermeier uses her camera alongside her partner, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, as a powerful and informative means to illustrate the deeply complex environmental issues plaguing oceans around the globe as the executive director of the SeaLegacy project.
Mittermeier and Nicklen are marine biologists by profession. After spending years studying the various ecosystems and organisms and photographing conservation efforts around the world, they realized the importance of preventing the degradation that is prominent in today's oceans. SeaLegacy was born with a mission to create high-impact visual communications using exceptional photojournalism to tell stories that people will resonate with to propel them to take action to protect the oceans.
As an acclaimed photographer for National Geographic, and the former president and founder of the prestigious International League of Conservation Photographers, Mittermeier's imagery is nothing short of amazing. However, it is a journey that remains brilliant, heart-breaking and exhausting. "It seems like 'out sight, out of mind' has made it easy for humanity to mine marine resources as if they were inexhaustible, while at the same time using the ocean as a dumping ground," Mittermeier said. "Our job is to shine a light under the thin blue line of the surface to reveal what we are bearing witness to."
Beneath the thin blue line, as Mittermeier calls it, is a world of beauty some of us will never know. Those who are lucky enough to propel a set of scuba flippers down through the layers to touch the bottom of the ocean floor or swim in awe in the presence of ancient whales see the ocean as Mittermeier does: a second home. And as a creator and harbourer of fragile marine life, the oceans are a home that desperately need protection against increasingly high threats caused by pollution, invasive species, over-fishing, and countless disrupters that interfere with nature's order of things.
"Industrial fishing is by far the biggest threat to our oceans, with 90 per cent of all the large fish, that is the tuna, swordfish, sharks, having already been extirpated," Mittermeier said. "The smaller fish, like anchovies, herring, and sardines on which entire ecosystems depend on, are known in the industry as 'garbage fish' and to biologists as 'foundation fish.' These fish are scooped out of the sea by the millions and often used to feed cattle and pigs." This difference in opinion between what is useless versus what is foundational to an entire ecosystem is alarming.
"We want to re-brand the way these fishing activities are seen," Mittermeier said. "So far, the only story we hear is the romantic story of fishermen out at sea or the economic narrative of fishing as a source of jobs or taxes. Our goal is to change that narrative so that people understand that an ocean without fish is a dead ocean, and a planet without an ocean is a dead planet."
SeaLegacy is transforming marine life and the oceans twofold: issues that are often overlooked or under-reported are documented and a call to action on building public pressure for governments to act on further protection and for people to be more accountable for their own actions as consumers. As of now, Mittermeier has been successful in carrying out the first part of an exhibition to the Falkan Islands, a remote South Atlantic archipelago floating in British waters. "We are working in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society to begin the process of working towards their first marine protected area," Mittermeier said. A second expedition is scheduled for this coming winter.
The work of SeaLegacy has also taken Mittermeier to northern Norway, where she continues to work on creating alternative economies around the presence of orcas and other cetaceans in the Fjords. "Tourism around these animals is becoming an important activity in towns that would otherwise see very little economic activity," Mittermeier said. "Creating tourism opportunities around whale watching is important to create alternatives to industrial fishing and oil exploration. We are working with the Danish Museum of Natural History on this and other activities to promote conservation."
While SeaLegacy is growing and reaching waters around the world, one of the most important projects Mittermeier is currently working on is in our own backyard. SeaLegacy is currently pushing for the creation of marine protected areas in British Columbia, which is one of the most beautiful and pristine coastlines, but also one that faces tremendous threats from over-fishing, fish farms, oil tanker traffic, and logging. The work that SeaLegacy promotes does not come without its share of hardships. As Mittermeier explains, although SeaLegacy is trying to promote economic and environmental change in the name of conservation, it can be tough to be seen as such in the eyes of the Canadian government. "Canada has very strict rules for non-profits, and it has taken a lot of time and endless bureaucracy to set up our legal structure in Canada, where we live," Mittermeier said. "Thankfully, we are also able to work through partners in other countries, so we have been able to do most of the work we set out to do."
Despite these setbacks, SeaLegacy's unabating pursuit of prosperous oceans and marine life stems from its unabiding ability to showcase the root of its conservation efforts through storytelling and photojournalism. The team of photographers, filmmakers, and media experts working with SeaLegacy are renowned for their visual communication skills and an unfaltering mastery to push boundaries and share the stories of the oceans.
SeaLegacy works closely with The National Geographic Society, who is known worldwide as a producing a powerhouse of storytellers, photojournalists, scientists, and conservationists. It is a relationship that has proved critical to the expeditions SeaLegacy plans to undergo in the near future. "We come from a tradition of photojournalism that demands the highest standards of excellence and National Geographic provides us with credibility, a solid media platform, and the input of some of the brightest minds in the business," Mittermeier said.
SeaLegacy is a young organization, and its biggest success to date has been securing the credibility needed to grow its audiences. As of now, SeaLegacy is launching a new initiative with the Pew Charitable Trust to create a visual archive that helps promote marine protected areas in the Antarctic region. "This is a huge challenge and one that is imperative to well-being of all humanity, " Mittermeier said. "There are no absolute victories in conservation and the challenge is to maintain a finger on the pulse of new threats and opportunities."
To learn more about SeaLegacy and stay up to date on their work, click here or follow the journey on Instagram @sea_legacy
To view more of Cristina Mittermeier's personal work, click here or follow her visual journey on Instagram @cristinamittermeier
This article was first published by PWB on May 4th, 2016