48 hours with photographer Cristina Mittermeier

The marine biologist, photographer and SeaLegacy co-founder works tirelessly to fight climate change. I got to tag along with her for two days.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The marine biologist, photographer and SeaLegacy co-founder visits far-flung places to document climate change, but this trip is more personal. Mittermeier is from Mexico, and we're going back to the coastal towns in Quintana Roo in the Yucatan where she got her start as a scientist in the late 80s. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier lived in Akumal in 1989, where she catalogued wildlife, including sea turtles. Her work helped establish the Akumal Ecological Center, a nondescript building (behind the bench where Mittermeier sits) with a simple sign, where important conservation work in the area is still being done 30 years later.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

Crews work daily to clean up a type of seaweed called sargassum from the Akumal beach. Sargassum provides important food and shelter to sea life in the ocean, but it can threaten the health of humans as well as coastal ecosystems. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier and Blue Sphere Foundation campaigns manager Candace Crespi prepare to snorkel in Casa Cenote. Common in Mexico, cenotes are limestone sinkholes, or natural wells. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

An experienced guide, Jonatan, snorkels with us. He points out wildlife along the way, including a Morelet's crocodile named Panchito.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier is an experienced diver and has the gear to match.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Casa Cenote is located a short distance from Akumal, and Mittermeier has memories of being the only one swimming here back in the 1980s.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Now it's more of a tourist destination, but the staff is working to protect Casa Cenote by banning sunscreen, which can damage its ecosystem. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier (right) and Crespi (left) prep for the swim. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier dives to the bottom of the cenote and captures images of things that most people would never get to see otherwise.

Candace Crespi

Candace Crespi

Diving is a tool, she explains. It enables her to get the images she wants.

Candace Crespi

Candace Crespi

Next up is the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a protected area near Tulum that's inundated with plastic and sargassum.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier sorts through some of the plastic waste littering the beach.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Plastic waste is a big problem in Sian Ka'an.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

As you get closer to the water, the sargassum at Sian Ka'an is piled very high. If you take a wrong step, you can sink into it, down to the actual beach several feet below. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Crespi wasn't as lucky as Mittermeier. She fell through the sargassum to the beach below.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It smells awful. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier grabs her camera to document the state of the beach.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

She likes to use the Sony A7 III and A9 mirrorless cameras.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

We travel slightly inland from the coast to visit a Mayan pyramid in Coba. A critical aspect of Mittermeier's work is to document the impact of climate change on indigenous people, as they are often the most affected by environmental issues, she explains.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

We then visit the Punta Laguna Nature Reserve north of Coba on the inland road back to Cancun. Mittermeier knows this area well from her time living in Akumal, including the Mayan family who runs the reserve. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

After a short hike into Punta Laguna, we are rewarded with views of spider monkeys.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

A  curious coati gets close to us in Punta Laguna.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

We visit another cenote; this one is located in Punta Laguna. Unlike Casa Cenote, this sinkhole is tall and narrow and requires rappelling gear.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Mittermeier is lowered into the cenote, which is full of bats. Cenotes, including this one, were a main source of fresh water for ancient Mayas.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET