Interview with photographer Cristina Mittermeier

As part of our Making Waves interview series, we speak with world-renowned photographer Cristina Mittermeier to discuss her career, her passion for the oceans, and how she came to find her kindred species-- the sperm whale. 

1. How did you get started in your photography career?

Conservation is the guiding principle of my entire career and photography was the best tool I could find to communicate with large audiences.  Learning about our oceans in school taught me that they are in a lot of trouble from overfishing, pollution and climate change. I wanted to share my concern with others to drive change. I initially tried using science as a vehicle but discovered that unlike science, which often creates an intellectual barrier that people are either intimidated or uninterested in, photography is an open invitation into a dialogue; this is especially important today because we are living at a time when there are so many divisions and uncertainty. Photography gives us an opportunity to explore our shared humanity, to ask questions, to exercise empathy, and to relate to people who are different than ourselves. Photography can take us to places that we might not otherwise be able to experience or care for. Photography is a bridge of empathy to the other passengers on spaceship Earth.

2. What has been your most memorable encounter with marine wildlife? 

During a ten-day expedition to photograph the largest creature on our planet, the mighty blue whale, I also had an exciting encounter with a sperm whale.  Photographing blue whales is truly challenging.  Not only are they massive and fast, but unlike smaller cetaceans, they seem completely uninterested and unamused by humans.  That makes it hard to get them to slow down long enough for a photograph, as they go about their feeding forays into the deep and they are truly impossible to keep up with.  My partner, photographer Paul Nicklen, was very clear with our guide: despite seeing other species of whales around us, we were only interested in pursuing the elusive blue whale.

One calm morning, however, after several hours without sighting a single whale, we saw a blow in the distance.  “It is not a blue whale. It is a sperm whale. Do you want to see it?”, Asked our Portuguese guide. A lone male appeared to be resting on the surface about a quarter of a mile away.  Having nothing else to look at, the boat dropped us off in what the captain thought would be the trajectory of the whale - this was my first ever encounter with a sperm whale, the largest carnivore on the planet.  I had heard tales of how powerful their echolocation booms can be and how they can stun prey or any creature that might wander too close to them. After several seconds peering hard into the green water, out of the visibility range, I saw the misshapen head of the colossal creature heading right towards us. I have to confess I was a little more than nervous.

I listened for echolocation clicks but heard nothing, and as the whale inched closer, coming straight at us fast, I muttered in alarm to Paul, speaking into my snorkel, “It doesn’t see us!”  That woke it up, and it dove right before it collided with us.  It seems that after a long session of feeding on squid in the deep waters off the Azores, this leviathan was taking a nap as it swam at 8 knots on the surface. It had not realised we were right on its path.

Since then, I have been with many other sperm whales in the water, and I have observed their affectionate interactions with each other, their gentle curiosity towards humans, and I have witnessed in awe, some of their unique and amazing habits and behaviours.  I truly love sperm whales, and I am touched and inspired by the lifelong family bonds they keep.  More than anything, I want to believe they have forgiven us for the massive slaughter of their species we perpetrated over so many decades.  They seem to be slowly recovering though, and I can assure you, the world is a better place with them in it.

3. What do you consider the greatest threat to our oceans today?

One of the biggest threats to our oceans is the fact that they are out of sight, out of mind.  It is hard for people to see and connect with the vast quantities of marine life that are mined out of our oceans every day to produce seafood, pet food and fertilizers.  What we dump into the ocean, however, is becoming much more evident.  Every day humans dump 1.5 million pounds of trash into the sea, much of it plastic.  We are robbing our largest support system, the very ecosystem that acts as a massive carbon sink and oxygen producer, of its ability to keep this planet alive.  It is time we take drastic measures to curb industrial fishing and waste dumping into the ocean. 

4. How do you make sure that the photos you take have a lasting conservation impact?

The work of the conservation photographer doesn’t end when you trip the shutter; that’s when it begins.  To be successful, you have to be a student to politics and policy to make sure your images reach the people who need to see your stories.  Sometimes I am trying to rally millions of people to put pressure on a government or a corporation to change policies and practices; other times, my audience may be the one minister that holds the key to some protection or law.  Conservation photography is not about image-making; it is about diplomacy and public pressure.

5. What is your favourite place on earth? 

Thirty feet below the surface of the ocean, once my mind stops racing, and all I can hear is the beating of my own heart.  More than the peaceful feeling of being underwater, what excites me the most is the possibility of seeing some amazing creature or behaviour.  You just never know who will show up on a dive.  It could be a playful sea lion, a shark or even a whale; but also the little fish, the bright starfish, the playful crab amuse me and make me happy.  Being part of the vast oceanic community, even for the short duration of a dive, is what fills my soul with gratitude for the lucky opportunity I have of being a witness to our planet’s most spectacular ecosystem: our oceans.

6. What can people do to help protect marine life?

If a spaceship arrived on Earth today, it would naturally assume we are an ocean planet, and all of us are ocean creatures.  Without a living ocean, there simply could not be life on this planet, and the biggest threat to its survival is the planetary threat of climate change. Marine ecosystems are not only some of the largest producers of oxygen, but they are also our planet’s best carbon sinks.  To make sure our ocean survives, we must curb our carbon emissions as fast as possible.  Painful as it is, we must accept that corporations and governments must pay a carbon price and we must also accelerate the transition to renewable energy.  Yes, oil might be cheaper in some places, but the planetary cost of not making that transition immediate will be catastrophic.  We also need to make our diets more plant-based than ever.  Wild fish is a luxury and just like we don’t expect to see the large predators of the Serengeti in our grocery shelves, consuming species like tuna, shrimps, sharks and groupers, is an eccentric use of our marine resources.  The easiest change you can make today is to eat less beef and to reject single-use plastics.  The most important change we all can do today is to become more outspoken and to demand the kind of planet we want to live on.