Cristina Mittermeier: “When I’m a little scared, I’m in the right place”.

Cristina Mittermeier: “When I’m a little scared, I’m in the right place”.

Creativity has taken Cristina Mittermeier to some of the most unique corners of the globe. A world renowned marine biologist, photographer, writer and conservationist, she inspires environmental action through visual storytelling, unbound by language or geography. Cristina has been recognized with the Smithsonian Conservation Photographer of the Year, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, is a Sony Artisan of Imagery and a TED Talks speaker. In 2015, she co-founded SeaLegacy with her partner Paul Nicklen, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the ocean. Originally from Mexico City, we spoke to Cristina about her remarkable creative life from Mexico to Canada and protecting the magic of our planet.

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ON WHERE YOU GREW UP   

I was born in Mexico City, which at the time was probably one of the largest cities in the world. Both my parents were from small towns in Mexico. By the time I was nine years old they couldn’t take the city anymore and we moved to a smaller town called Cuernavaca, which is in the highlands of central Mexico, very far away from the ocean. It is called the ever spring city, which has perfect weather all year round and it’s in a foothill of a volcano, which means it has incredible fertile soil – my mother says that it’s so fertile that you can throw away the broomstick and it will bloom again. 

ON WHERE YOUR CREATIVE JOURNEY BEGAN 

When I was living in the mountains of central Mexico, very far from the ocean, my father would bring home books. There were great adventure books by an Italian novelist called Emilio Salgari who wrote incredibly vivid stories of pirates in Malaysia – tigers, crocodiles and sharks, a beautiful girl that lived on an island, and I was just mesmerized by the adventure. I remember my Dad coming home with a Jacques Cousteau book which he gave to my brother, but I would sneak into his bedroom to look at the pictures! When I decided to be a marine biologist, Mexico didn’t have environmental studies or marine scientists, we have fisheries. Learning about how we catch our food from the ocean, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s not unlimited. I remember not feeling keen about being part of that industry, so I started working on conservation almost immediately after graduating. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time.

Orcas in Norway photographed by Cristina Mittermeier.

ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE OCEAN

I find the ocean so mysterious and so unknown. I like being a little scared, like when you get dropped in the ocean, look down and you can’t see the bottom. And you think, yeah, there are other animals here like sharks. I like that feeling of vulnerability – when I’m a little scared, I’m in the right place, because I’m going to see something or experience something that a lot of people don’t experience. I never want to be cavalier or a maverick but I like being a little scared. When you get too comfortable you start forgetting that you’re a very small part of this planet in this very big universe. 

I find the ocean so mysterious and so unknown.. I like that feeling of vulnerability – when I’m a little scared, I’m in the right place, because I’m going to see something or experience something that a lot of people don’t experience.. When you get too comfortable you start forgetting that you’re a very small part of this planet.

ON THE POWER OF VISUAL STORYTELLING 

As a child I loved doing creative things, but it never occurred to me that you could use your creativity to make a living. When I went to university, I was told the way you influenced the world was through science. I spent a lot of time as part of the scientific community, publishing papers and trying to understand the planet we live on. I found out pretty quickly that when you’re a scientist, you’re speaking a language that most people don’t understand. And in fact people reject it because nobody likes feeling stupid when you’re confronted with a subject that you don’t feel comfortable with. People don’t want to know about the science of climate change or the science of the oceans. The majority of the population don’t read that shit, it just sits in drawers. So I discovered photography as a way to make people take notice – I was part of creating a beautiful coffee table book, and at the launch event I could see that nobody was reading – people were stopping at the pictures and asking questions about them, so I thought, ah, I’m going to engage with creativity and I just happen to be talented at seeing the world through a camera.

Top: A resting group of sled dogs during an expedition in Greenland. Below: The other-worldy landscape of Antarctica. Photography by Cristina Mittermeier.

ON AN UNFORGETTABLE PLACE YOUR CREATIVITY HAS TAKEN YOU 

I spent three weeks traveling by dog sled in northern Greenland for a film with National Geographic that airs next month called ‘The Last Ice’. That was an education – as a girl from Mexico, going to sleep at night on sea ice in Greenland, it was very eye opening to see how quickly the environment is changing and the very true consequences for people that live in the north. 

I also just came back from East Timor which is right next door to Australia.  It was under occupation for 25 years and it didn’t properly develop. A consequence is that the reefs are intact, and to dive in Timor-Leste is like going back to The Great Barrier Reef 30 years ago. It’s all still there and so wild, but and at the same time, an example of how something that seems indestructible can be so fragile. But you know what the only danger in Timor Leste? Crocodiles from Darwin, Australia are swimming across the ocean and going there! So the whole time we were diving I was looking over my shoulder. 

ON FOUNDING SEA LEGACY   

SeaLegacy was born because my partner Paul and I were working for National Geographic and realized that you can take all the pictures you want and put them on a magazine, but unless there’s somebody using them to champion a cause, nothing happens. We created SeaLegacy because we thought there’s deeper stories to be told, and we wanted to have our own distribution channel. We started publishing through social media because that was the only thing we had accessible to us, and people started liking our stuff – it was like in Forrest Gump when he starts running and looks back and there’s people following him. 

We started publishing through social media because that was the only thing we had accessible to us, and people started liking our stuff – it was like in Forrest Gump when he starts running and looks back and there’s people following him. 

The evolution of SeaLegacy was that we have these followers, and everybody’s concerned about what’s happening to the environment, but how do you invite your followers to do something more than just share or like the work? We started thinking about activation. I remember going to see a film called ‘Chasing Coral’ about how the reef is dying and I felt almost depressed, like there’s nothing we can do about this. So we thought if you share a piece of content, you better give people something that they can do, or you just disempower that person even more. We met two developers from the UK who started building the SeaLegacy website from the ground up, so that we could activate our followers to take action and tomorrow. 

Top: Cristina with fellow photographer and Sea Legacy co-founder Paul Nicklen. Below: Cristina getting the shot. Photography

ON YOUR RECENT ‘ONLY ONE’ PLATFORM LAUNCH 

We just launched the beta version of a new piece of technology called ‘Only One’, which gives people an opportunity to take action right then and there. I think that’s powerful to feel like you’re part of a community taking action, and together we can do this, there’s so many of us. If we all engage, we really can do this. We’re building ‘Only One’ as a common utility and service with the entire ocean conservation community, so hopefully stories like ‘Chasing Coral’ can add their content to the platform, and help activate people watching the film to do something.  

ON MEETING THE KAYAPO TRIBE

This is a very remote area, you have to travel on small air planes and several jumps to finally make it there. And people were just so warm and so wonderful, especially the women. You fall in love with the people, and have to marvel at how they survive on nothing but what the forest and the river provide, and at the same time they have all these people coming in and dangling trinkets in front of them. You get a sense that those people don’t need to be connected to the outside world, they have everything they need and they’re better off alone. 

Children from the Kayapo tribe, indigenous peoples who live in the remote rainforests of Brazil. Photography by Cristina Mittermeier.

ON WHAT YOU LEARN FROM NATIVE COMMUNITIES

I remember hearing somebody talk about poverty and how those poor people are poor. But poverty is a label that we created. It doesn’t apply to them, they have everything they need and they don’t have ‘money’, they have nothing to buy or sell. The trading really has to do with the family relationships you have, and the more you have, the more you have to give. That’s a wonderful way of living, it’s never about getting ahead of anybody else. I started realizing this idea of ‘enoughness’, and when do you know that you have enough? 

Money is our invention and we allow it to rule our lives. We measure our success, we measure ourselves against others by how much we have, not by how much we can give. It’s a terrible construct but it’s of our own doing, but we can re-master it. 

Poverty is a label that we created. It doesn’t apply to them, they have everything they need and they don’t have ‘money’.. trading really has to do with the family relationships you have, and the more you have, the more you have to give. That’s a wonderful way of living.

ON WORK AND TRAVEL DURING COVID19 

COVID has been interesting because I’ve been home for six months now, which has almost never happened. And I’ve actually quite enjoyed learning about the island where I live, there’s so much to see and just being home. Paul and I have been doing a lot of mountain biking. We discovered a lake about an hour and a half north of where we live that had probably four million tadpoles of an endangered species called the Western Toad. The tadpoles were doing a daily migration across this lake to feed. One tadpole would start and then was followed by four million. But I’m excited about traveling again. 

Top: The horizon across the Amazon jungle. Below: Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen. Photography by Cristina Mittermeier.

ON YOUR ADVICE FOR CREATIVE CAREERS  

I think you need to be fun and easy to work with. It’s been good for me to never be an asshole or difficult to work with. We need to find the courtesy and the generosity and the kindness towards each other because you can lose it so quickly. When I moved to Canada I rediscovered the kinder side of me, I’m so much happier. If I could give anybody advice it is to find the kindness in yourself because it’s contagious. 

ON WHERE YOU FIND INSPIRATION

I find a lot of inspiration just in the quiet of nature. I think you can find it almost anywhere if you’re willing to be quiet. We talk too much and we like listening to ourselves too much, but if you step outside, anywhere and you just listen, there’s a lot of inspiration just listening to the birds, listening to the sound of the night, or the water running. I like being underwater, you know, I like that nobody can talk to me. Before COVID I went to an island off of Queensland called Raine Island. Just floating above the reef was so mesmerizing. 

ON MARS AND CONSERVATION

I’m always so shocked when somebody says something like “Elon Musk is gonna take us to Mars” and I’m like “really you’ve got your ticket already?” Imagine sitting on that spaceship – it would be the mother of all briefings before take off, to know everything you need to know in order to survive. Yet here we are on our own spaceship, Earth, and we know so little about it. We are so casually discarding entire ecosystems that we might need later. We have to remember that we live on a very small planet that has everything we need. There is magic on this planet, everywhere. 

Above: Ta’Kailya Blaney, a passionate young woman from the Tla A’min Nation in British Columbia. Below: Will George, a passionate Tsleil-Waututh warrior. 

ON FAVORITE PLACES ON VANCOUVER ISLAND

On Vancouver Island we are on the inside part of the island, kind of like in the lower third north of Victoria which is the capital city of British Columbia. It’s a retirement community so there’s not a lot of socializing happening here but we do have a couple of pubs, and tonight we’re going to a place called Mount Arrowsmith Brewery where we get local beer and awesome vegetarian pizza.  

ON A MUST WATCH PHOTOGRAPHY PIECE

Only.one

It has a lot of beautiful photography, videos and behind the scenes, and then all different actions that you can take to help the environment and planet. 

ON IKIGAI  

I love the Japanese concept of the ikigai – ‘A reason for being’.  I very much subscribe to the idea of finding the confluence of the four elements  – what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, what you are good at – which is the reason that you get up everyday. When I talk to my kids I say if you’re asking how much money you’re going to be paid with something, you’re asking the wrong question. That will come but first you have to love what you do. 

ON VANCOUVER ISLAND IN ONE WORD

Warm.

Not just because it’s warm here, but because people are so warm. 

ON THE OCEAN IN ONE WORD

Rich.

The sea is so rich, it’s life on life on life. 

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Nuggets in this interview

inspiration

Sea Legacy

"We created Sea Legacy because we thought there’s deeper stories to be told".

–Cristina Mittermeier

inspiration

Only.One

"A new piece of technology called ‘Only One’, which gives people an opportunity to take action right then and there".

–Cristina Mittermeier

travel

Vancouver Island

"I’ve actually quite enjoyed learning about the island where I live, there’s so much to see".

–Cristina Mittermeier

food and drink

Arrowsmith Brewery, Vancouver Island

"Mount Arrowsmith Brewery where we get local beer and awesome vegetarian pizza".

–Cristina Mittermeier

inspiration

Cristina Mittermeier

"We started publishing through social media.. it was like in Forrest Gump when he starts running, looks back and there’s people following"

–Cristina Mittermeier

inspiration

National geographic, The last Ice

"I spent three weeks traveling by dog sled for a film with National Geographic that airs next month called The Last Ice"

–Cristina Mittermeier

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