Q&A WITH CRISTINA MITTERMEIER, WINNER OF THE 2021 SEATTLE AQUARIUM SYLVIA EARLE MEDAL

Cristina Mittermeier diving underwater while holding a underwater camera rig.
"I often have to pinch myself when I am reminded that I do have the coolest job in the world. It is an incredible privilege to get to do the work that I do, and I am so grateful and so proud to be one of the women at the front-lines of conservation. Women are taking on more leadership roles in the field; we are scientists and doctors, photographers and filmmakers and we are changing the world together every day. It is important to me to celebrate and support the accomplishments of other women; we need to hold each other up as innovators, and artists and examples for inspiration."—Cristina Mittermeier | Photo: Paul Nicklen/SeaLegacy


“Conservation is a big puzzle, and my job demands that I am an ambassador both for the natural world and my fellow conservationists.”
—Cristina Mittermeier

In recognition of her three decades of courageous journalism, and making the pictures that tell the story of our planet, we are honored to present Cristina Mittermeier with this year’s Seattle Aquarium Sylvia Earle Medal. 

A marine biologist and activist who pioneered the concept and field of conservation photography, Cristina’s many accomplishments include founding the International League of Conservation Photographers to provide a platform for photographers working on environmental issues and co-founding the nonprofit SeaLegacy, an organization dedicated to the protection of the ocean and which harnesses the power of communications technology to educate and inform the world about the incredible beauty of the ocean, and all of the challenges that it faces in the wake of the climate crisis. 

In 2020, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Cristina announced the most ambitious project of her career: Only One, a new collective of organizations that uses digital technology and visual storytelling to catalyze lasting cultural change, with the ultimate goal of conserving the world's oceans from now into perpetuity. She is a Sony Artisan of Imagery and was named one of National Geographic's Adventurers of the Year in 2018, among many other awards. 

Although we can’t honor Cristina’s tremendous achievements at our annual Ocean Conservation Honors event, we can share this Q&A—which Cristina generously participated in from on board the SeaLegacy1 in the beautiful waters of the Bahamas.

Titouan Bernicot working on an underwater coral garden; photographed by Cristina Mittermeier.
"Titouan Bernicot told me he was 'born on a pearl farm lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.' At age 16, he realized that the coral reefs in French Polynesia were dying and decided to do something to help. He founded the Coral Gardeners, a nonprofit that educates the public about the importance of coral reefs. Now 20 years old, Titouan works alongside his fellow Coral Gardeners to restore the reef on their home island of Mo'orea. Spending time with them and my team at SeaLegacy reinvigorated my own sense of purpose and filled me with hope."—Cristina Mittermeier | Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

Q: Art and science can sometimes be seen as polar opposites, but in your work they go hand in hand. How do you weave these two subjects together, and why do you feel it’s effective?
A: For me, art and science very much go hand in hand. I work hard to ensure my images are artistic and beautiful, and I use my scientific knowledge to inform how they are presented to my audience. Every image is an opportunity to tell a story that educates, inspires, amuses and brings people closer to the imperative of protecting our only home.

Q: What keeps you doing the work you do?
A: The knowledge that there is no other choice. Climate change is one of many crises affecting the natural world. I still don't see the urgent recognition of the need to act swiftly to avoid even more severe planetary consequences.

Salmon swimming in a river; photographed by Cristina Mittermeier.
"When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I had never seen wild salmon, especially as they make their way up the beautiful rivers and streams of British Columbia and Alaska and all I can say is, I was blown away. It is difficult to imagine the slice of pink flesh sitting on your sushi or your bagel as an ocean super-athlete but that is exactly what salmon are. After spawning in the clear, cold waters of their native rivers, salmon babies swim out to the ocean and depending on the species, might spend between a year and four years out at sea. Eventually they return to the same stream where they were born, oftentimes having to swim upstream, against the current and dodging dams, fishermen, roads and predators, for hundreds of kilometres. The few that make it, will spawn and then will die. This is an oversimplified story of a very complex creature. Measures must be taken to ensure they don’t disappear like so many other species."—Cristina Mittermeier | Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

Q: What impact do you hope to make with your work—what legacy would you like to leave?
A: I want to be part of the generation that creates the paradigm shift I have dreamt of for so long. At the end of my life, I want to know that my contributions helped move humanity toward a better understanding of how to live within our planet's natural boundaries. Our solutions should not be solely technological, they need to be philosophical, and I know that thanks to my work as an artist and influencer I have a role to play in socializing those ideas.

Q: You practice a principle called “enoughness,” which you’ve said has to do with taking only what you need and using everything that you take, knowing that doing so will allow others to also have enough. Can you describe some of the ways you use "enoughness" in your daily life?
A: That's easy. Just like I practice yoga and fiscal discipline, I practice enoughness. All that is needed is to ask the question, "How much is enough for me? Do I really need more of X or Y to feel fulfilled and happy? Am I consuming mindlessly, or are my choices thoughtful and considerate?" Enoughness is a personal choice we all can make every day.

Orca whales spy hopping and surfacing in the Salish Sea; photographed by Cristina Mittermeier.
"The Salish Sea is an underwater world bursting with biodiversity. Roving pods of orcas patrol the rocky coasts, sea lions congregate in the shallows, and the ocean floor is alive with brightly-colored anemones that rival our ocean’s coral reefs. Recently, our friends at Mission Blue spearheaded by my good friend and ocean legend Dr. Sylvia Earle, have declared the Salish Sea a “hope spot”; a critical marine ecosystem with the potential to replenish our ocean’s biodiversity and support a thriving blue economy."—Cristina Mittermeier | Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

Q: You've traveled and photographed all over the world. What stands out to you about the waters and animals of the Pacific Northwest?
A: The Pacific Northwest is one of the most abundant and beautiful seascapes in the world. It is not just the ocean, but the menagerie of amazing wildlife that use the water and the land, and the unique relationship that First Nations and Indigenous communities have had with that landscape for thousands of years.
 
Q: What messages do you aim to send with your work, and what actions do you hope to inspire? 
A: I recognize that as more and more people become aware of the perilous situation humanity faces if we continue down the same path, the feeling of guilt and powerlessness can be paralyzing. I have tried to find ways to help people feel like they are invited and welcome to be part of the solutions. By attaching easy actions to every piece of content we produce and publish in our activation platform, Only One, we make it easy and fun for people to help create solutions. We all can be part of making this a better planet.

Egg yolk jelly floating in the Salish Sea; photographed by Cristina Mittermeier.
"Egg Yolk Jelly in the Salish Sea. When I create a fine art photograph, I look for compositions that take what is unknown and mysterious for my viewers and make it familiar; as if they were the ones swept up in the pull of the ocean with their camera housing or standing on the shores with the viewfinder pressed to their eye. I want them to feel as if they know my subjects, to evoke a sense of closeness that we may feel for our own homes, beloved backyard ponds or gardens, and the people with whom we share our lives. I want us to feel how we are inextricably connected to this beautiful planet and rouse us to protect it."—Cristina Mittermeier | Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

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