© Paul Nicklen
For many people, it is easy to imagine a distinct boundary between land and sea, between solid earth and flowing water—between green landscapes and blue seascapes. We tend to separate the two in our minds. Yet, in the margins where the ocean and the shore overlap, there exists a perfect blend of both colors in marine ecosystems that are as green as they are blue.
Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you how much I love the ocean’s lush mangrove trees, its seagrasses swaying with the current, its wild salt marshes flooded daily by the tides, and its characterful seaweed clinging to rocks like a work of art. These in-between zones brim with a mystery and richness that, in my work as a photographer, I am always eager to capture on film. Beyond their beauty, the green plants of the ocean hold an incredible power that could be one of the keys to solving the climate crisis.
Today, the ocean is in trouble, getting hotter, higher, and more acidic as the planet warms. Yet, it also has the potential to be a solution and reverse this trend. Providing more services for humanity than we ever thought possible, the ocean and its coastal regions absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it away for millennia, with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 4 billion tonnes a year in 2030—the equivalent of taking 2.5 billion cars off the road each year. The protection and restoration of mangroves, seagrass beds, and salt marshes, along with the expansion of seaweed aquaculture, is vital to this process.
When I dove in the Jardines de la Reina—the “Gardens of the Queen”—in Cuba, a marine reserve protected for more than three decades, I felt especially moved by these underwater forests. Often referred to as one of the Crown Jewels of the Caribbean, the Jardines de la Reina is one of the few places you can still see untouched, intact, and healthy mangrove and seagrass ecosystems living in harmony.
Life was bursting at the seams. One moment I was surrounded by 10,000 tiny sardines swimming together in a rush of silver; the next, I found myself in the company of a group of eagle rays flapping their graceful, dotted fins. You don’t need to be a scientist to realize the magic that is happening there—everything is healthy because everything is protected.
Sadly, not every coastal ecosystem in the world is thriving like the Jardines de la Reina. Since the 1980s, we have lost 35 percent of mangroves worldwide. When mangroves are degraded or destroyed, these forests go from sinks to sources, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere and contributing to the rising levels of greenhouse gases destabilizing the climate. These extraordinary aquatic trees are often harvested for their wood or cleared to make way for coastal development and public beaches. It does not take long for the coastal communities left in the wake of this mass deforestation to suffer consequences that far outweigh any short-term rewards gained.
It’s not too late to turn this ship around. Together, we can bring these critical environments back to life. The solutions to the ocean’s problems, to our problems, already exist. Yet many people just don’t know about them. For the last 30 years, I have used my camera to tell stories, defend the ocean and all of its wonders, and elevate the voices of those on the frontlines of conservation. It is at the heart of our work at SeaLegacy and Only One and an integral part of The Tide, a community of more than 5,000 supporters giving what they can each month to help shape our shared future.
This year, Tide members supported Tahiry Honko, a revolutionary mangrove carbon conservation project. In remote southwest Madagascar, working closely with our partner Blue Ventures, ten inspiring coastal communities have successfully developed a formal system to protect and sustainably manage their mangroves. Tahiry Honko is designed to earn carbon credits through the conservation and restoration of over 1,200 hectares of mangrove forest—about 2,500 football fields. The local communities then allocate funds from the sale of these carbon credits to priority infrastructure and to help families pay for school fees. Through this project, the Malagasy people are tackling climate breakdown and preserving marine resources for future generations. This model has incredible potential to be scaled up and reproduced in other locations around the world.
From its vast depths to its verdant green edges, the ocean is one of our greatest allies in the race against climate change. This is why it matters that the ocean is both blue and green, why I feel passionate about the work to heal our planet through the trees and grasses of the ocean.
Ready to help tackle the climate crisis with the ocean’s trees? Learn more: only.one/greenseas
About Cristina Mittermeier
Cristina Mittermeier is the marine biologist and activist who pioneered the concept and field of conservation photography. Mittermeier founded the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) in 2005 to provide a platform for photographers working on environmental issues. In 2014, Mittermeier co-founded SeaLegacy, a non-proﬁt organization dedicated to harnessing 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. Mittermeier is also the President of the Only One Collective.