The marine biologist, photographer and SeaLegacy co-founder works tirelessly to fight climate change. I got to tag along with her for two days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An experienced guide, Jonatan, snorkels with us. He points out wildlife along the way, including a Morelet's crocodile named Panchito.
Mittermeier is an experienced diver and has the gear to match.
Casa Cenote is located a short distance from Akumal, and Mittermeier has memories of being the only one swimming here back in the 1980s.
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.
Mittermeier (right) and Crespi (left) prep for the swim.
Mittermeier dives to the bottom of the cenote and captures images of things that most people would never get to see otherwise.
Diving is a tool, she explains. It enables her to get the images she wants.
Next up is the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a protected area near Tulum that's inundated with plastic and sargassum.
Mittermeier sorts through some of the plastic waste littering the beach.
Plastic waste is a big problem in Sian Ka'an.
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.
Crespi wasn't as lucky as Mittermeier. She fell through the sargassum to the beach below.
It smells awful.
Mittermeier grabs her camera to document the state of the beach.
She likes to use the Sony A7 III and A9 mirrorless cameras.
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.
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.
After a short hike into Punta Laguna, we are rewarded with views of spider monkeys.
A curious coati gets close to us in Punta Laguna.
We visit another cenote; this one is located in Punta Laguna. Unlike Casa Cenote, this sinkhole is tall and narrow and requires rappelling gear.
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.