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  • Writer's pictureCristina Mittermeier

Notes to My Younger Self

I recently posted a photo on Instagram of my PADI dive cards from 2010 and 1990. It prompted a friend to ask me what I would tell my younger self now—a question I found interesting and enlightening in reflecting upon where I was then, what I hoped to accomplish, and how far I’ve come since.

I didn’t know when I was 20 years old that we were going to have such little time to try to do something about the catastrophic existential crisis that we call climate change.

If I could, I would go back and tell my younger self to work faster to move quicker, work harder, to yell louder. I wish I had had the courage and the foresight of a young Greta Thunberg and do more when I was younger.

Alas, I was a good girl; I didn’t want to stand out or rock the boat. I regret I didn’t scream loud enough.

I was first certified for SCUBA in 1987, back when scientists were saying that we might be affected in 100 years, but here we are, just 30 years later, already dealing with these catastrophic circumstances. I wish I had screamed louder.

While it’s true that today many more people are becoming interested and willing to be engaged and activated, but we should have gotten here a lot faster. I wish many others had joined me in screaming louder.

It’s always been surprising to me that there were so very few people interested in “environmentalism,” what to me is the manual for how we behave on our own planet. I would love to go back and figure out how to make that a priority for more people.

When I look back, there were so many additional actions I could have taken to evoke a bigger response. But I suppose I’m proud of having taken the steps necessary to turn my interests into action.

It was 1989 when I realized how much my voice mattered.

I was in Mexico, working my very first adult job in a beach town called Akumal (Mayan for “Place of the Turtles”). After dinner, I would walk on the beach to wait for sea turtles to come out and nest. In the morning, raccoons and seagulls would dig up the nests, so I started relocating them. It wasn’t long before the tourists from nearby hotels wanted me to take them out to look at sea turtles.

I remember a younger version of me confidently explaining why sea turtles are an important part of our ecological system and how difficult it is for them to survive. I never get tired of seeing the wonder in people’s faces when they learn something new about our planet.

When I left Akumal, I didn’t realize that I had planted a seed that would grow into such a big ecological movement in the local community.

My actions in working to preserve their habitat and educate people about the turtles helped give birth to Centro Ecological Akumal (CEA) in 1993. I recently returned to Akumal and was pleased to see that CEA continues to educate the public about conservation of the environment.

Sea turtles are found in circumtropical oceans and some migrate thousands of miles to breeding sites where females will lay eggs on land. When the babies hatch, they begin their life’s journey alone; never to meet their mothers.

Whenever I see turtles, like this one in the Galapagos, I’m reminded that life is also a journey. At first, it seems that the journey is long, with plenty of time to change course. As I look back at my younger self, I realize what little time we have and how important it is to plant seeds that bring about change, even if you never see them bear fruit.

So you just never know what might come of an idea. Part of the impatience of youth is wanting immediate results and getting frustrated because it doesn’t seem that small actions have any effect. Sometimes it takes a long time.

I would tell my younger self to exercise patience and grace and to foster the growth process.

I would go back and remind myself that even if you plant the seed, you may never see the tree that grows from it. I would encourage her to continue to take those actions and not to lose hope, because even though those actions may seem small, they may eventually become something big.

I would nurture my younger self and help her to plant more of those seeds.

I would tell my younger self that the power of a photograph can change the way you see yourself or see the way the world sees a particular thing. Every once in awhile, I find a photo album I had forgotten about and am always surprised by how a photo of myself, staring back at me from three decades ago, can take me back in time.

A younger me poses next to an airplane on a remote landing strip in the Amazon. It was 1998 and I had just led my own expedition for the first time; I was happy and relieved to have made it.

It’s in those moments of seeing myself and the things that I have photographed over the course of my career that I realize that my younger self isn’t that far away from who I am now.

I still feel like the 18-year-old me who wanted to save the world, but didn’t quite know how. I still feel like the bright-eyed 23-year-old who was just beginning to put solid ideas into action, to find her voice and realize her place in the world.

Now, I have the knowledge. Now, I have the experience.

Every single stage of my life has given me something—lessons that are powerful, and lessons that are difficult.

I would definitely go back and tell my younger self that she has something to say . . . and to not be afraid to say it. Louder. More assuredly. Stronger. And with all the passion in her heart.

Thanks so much for being here,


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