Exposing the Hidden Beauty of the Everglades

Exposing the Hidden Beauty of the Everglades

By Denise Pietsch
All media © Luca Martinez 

“It’s when you love something first that you’ll even care to protect it.”

If the Everglades hired a social media manager, it would be Luca Martinez. At only 18 years old, Luca has captured the attention of millions with his slow motion shots of an alligator set amongst vibrant green fronds and hypnotic Reels dredged from the depths of Florida’s Everglades. But his mission isn’t to collect likes and shares. Luca’s story is one of environmental stewardship through the lens of a camera and hope through the illumination of beauty.

When we talk about coral reef decay over a lifetime, we’re often asking those who started diving in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Luca’s life work shows us the ugly truth of crippled coral off the Florida coast, a dramatic decay in the heath of reefs he has been exploring since childhood.

“I went back [to Pickle’s Reef] recently, maybe a few years ago, and the reef was completely white. It was completely bleached. Dead. I mean completely just - how do I explain it? Just flattened. It was a graveyard.”

It’s enough to make you feel hopeless. Until Luca takes you deep into the rarely visited waters of the Everglades and shows you that there’s a lot of beauty left and it’s imperative we protect it.



The Video That Changed Everything

“Before I got into the whole underwater thing I was just shooting on land above water. But I was seeing these incredible underwater worlds from above. So I saved up for the [Nikon Z6] 200DL and I remember the first video I made with it: the first day I got it, I drove over to a dome - to Cypress Dome - that I knew had incredible underwater landscape because all the plants underwater were blooming, it was all in season. And my first video changed everything. It got 12 million views. People couldn’t believe what the Everglades looked like underwater and I remember being so stoked from that point on.”

It’s easy to see art, photography, video, as extracurricular, as hobby. Beautiful, yes, but what deep social impacts can beauty really have? In the case of underwater and environmental photo and video, it turns out that this impact can be both dynamic and profound, from the mood enhancing benefits of observing images of nature to its ability to improve executive attention. We can see that this type of art is not just good for our mental health, it’s also beneficial to the health of the very environment being photographed: it’s a form of advocacy for endangered areas and a lesson in what’s to lose if we let our most serene scapes become endangered too.

“The more time I spent out there, the more time I spent understanding the ecosystem in and out of the water. I can’t help but to realize how misunderstood the [Everglades] is. And that’s, I think, where the motivation comes. Because of course I was stunned at such a beautiful place but also confused how I hadn’t heard of this place, hadn’t been taught about this place, about what it really is. Here in Florida we’re taught that the Everglades are dirty, they’re dangerous, that its haunted, that you shouldn’t go out there unless you’re on an airboat. Wading through the water would have never crossed my mind three years ago. As I started seeing this place for myself and photographing it I was stunned at the places I was discovering but also motivated to share the story… as I learned more I also started realizing that where this place was going, the story of it, wasn’t really a happy one. And the Everglades is dying, the Everglades is suffocating. But reminding people that it’s still alive, and there’s still that beauty in it is so important because how can we even expect anyone to want to protect a place that they’ve not yet seen?



Viral and Visceral

“Cliches are cliches for a reason; that they usually hold at least a modicum of truth,” William Gibson imparts. Arguably one of the most “cliche” cliches in photography says, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” While worthiness is subjective and hard to quantify, studies do show that we remember pictures better than words. There’s even a name for this phenomenon, the Picture Superiority Effect.

Images, especially shocking ones, have a visceral impact on their viewer. I can remember in 2019-2020 my social media feed flooded in a sea of orange haze and bandaged animals. These images of the Australian brushfires had a powerful impact far and wide. As a result, over $50 million dollars were raised just for the WWF Australian Wildlife & Nature Recovery Fund alone. A 6-year old child, who lived over 10,000 miles from Australia, raised $250,000 for the animals impacted by the bushfires. Those gut-wrenching images and personal accounts shared through social media helped bring attention to a dangerous environmental disaster. That’s the power of photography. That’s the power Luca harnesses to help the wider world realize the beauty endemic to the Everglades, and what’s at stake if we lose it.

“9 million Floridians rely on the Everglades for their drinking water. The same fruits and vegetables that come from Florida that 350 million Americans eat are irrigated by the Everglades. What’s that worth to you?”



It’s a Different Kind of Wild

For someone so young, Luca has a deeply comprehensive understanding of how important photography is in showing people the sanctity and salience of the environment, above and below the water line. He also has another super power: he knows how to use this understanding. He’s got his finger on the pulse of social media; he knows exactly what people want to see and how it will make the biggest impact. Just one of his TikTok videos alone has 12 million views. His social media success has taken him to a much wider audience, too: nightly news features, contributing writer for Oceanographic Magazine, public speaking engagements, just to name just a few. These are remarkable feats for any one person, let alone someone so young.

“Its hidden beauty. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me getting into the water and filming and sharing it on TikTok and Instagram and targeting my generation specifically… the way we’re going to help this place is by visiting it because I always say that you’ll fall in love with it as I have… and that’s what its about.”

Perhaps one of Luca’s most endearing credentials, though, is his personality. As if he wasn’t already overflowing with talent (did I mention he’s also a musician?) and environmental good will, he’s also just a really nice person. He has a kindness and a warmth that is tangible, even over a Zoom call. And, it’s clear that personal fame is not Luca’s goal. The most flustered - if you could even call it that, Luca is the epitome of well-spoken and even-keeled - he became during the interview was when I asked him how he’s handling his new found fame. It was as though he hadn’t thought about all of this attention as being about him, like he’s just a vessel for making the ecosystem of the Everglades famous.

“It’s so simple: Go visit. Go experience it yourself. Because it requires you to visit, it requires your time. The reason we don’t talk about it so much is because it’s a different kind of wild. The Everglades don’t come up when we speak about this nation’s most beautiful national parks. It’s a wild that requires your time and your full attention. But when you give it that, incredible things happen out there.” The reasons I go back 🐊 #fyp #everglades #wildlifephotography #naturetiktok ♬ original sound - Luca Martinez


Hope Springs Eternal

In a world full of climate doom, dying reefs, and micro-plastics, Luca reminds us there’s still so much beauty left. There’s still so much left worth fighting for. To quote another well-worn cliche, “we’re not out of the woods yet” - far from it. But with Luca, and a new generation of environmental stewards like him, there’s hope. 



luca martinez bio photo

Luca Martinez is a nature and wildlife photographer and videographer from Miami, FL. Luca has introduced the beauty of a rarely experienced Everglades to more than 100 million worldwide viewers through viral cinematic videos on social media. When he's not out in the field, Luca gives talks about the wonders of the wetlands where he takes the audience through his experiences diving in cypress domes and photographing wildlife. Follow him on InstagramTikTok, or his website.


Denise Pietsch Bio Photo

Denise Pietsch (pronounced “Peach”) currently manages Ikelite’s Photo School and social media presence. Denise hails from New Jersey, where she obtained a degree in Dance Therapy. After years teaching dance she migrated into the corporate world and eventually came around to Ikelite via the natural career path of fruit distribution and early childhood development. In the end, her lifelong love of photography and octopuses combined into the work she does now. In addition to sharing her energy and enthusiasm with the underwater community she also manages social media for her dog, Joe, collects vinyl records, and enjoys creating memories with her friends and family.

Additional Reading

The Aquarium of the World: Diving Mexico's California Baja Sur

Illuminating the Technology of Coral Reef Research

Diving Into a Deeper Meaning: Finding Inspiration in the Scuba Industry

The Story of Ikelite | Making Underwater Photography Accessible [VIDEO]

Washed Ashore: Using Discarded Plastic to Save the Sea

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