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  • So I've had the great privilege

  • of traveling to some incredible places,

  • photographing these distant landscapes and remote cultures

  • all over the world.

  • I love my job.

  • But people think it's this string of epiphanies

  • and sunrises and rainbows,

  • when in reality, it looks more something like this.

  • (Laughter)

  • This is my office.

  • We can't afford the fanciest places to stay at night,

  • so we tend to sleep a lot outdoors.

  • As long as we can stay dry,

  • that's a bonus.

  • We also can't afford the fanciest restaurants.

  • So we tend to eat whatever's on the local menu.

  • And if you're in the Ecuadorianramo,

  • you're going to eat a large rodent called a cuy.

  • (Laughter)

  • But what makes our experiences perhaps a little bit different

  • and a little more unique than that of the average person

  • is that we have this gnawing thing in the back of our mind

  • that even in our darkest moments, and those times of despair,

  • we think, "Hey, there might be an image to be made here,

  • there might be a story to be told."

  • And why is storytelling important?

  • Well, it helps us to connect with our cultural and our natural heritage.

  • And in the Southeast,

  • there's an alarming disconnect between the public

  • and the natural areas that allow us to be here in the first place.

  • We're visual creatures,

  • so we use what we see to teach us what we know.

  • Now the majority of us aren't going to willingly go

  • way down to a swamp.

  • So how can we still expect those same people to then advocate

  • on behalf of their protection?

  • We can't.

  • So my job, then, is to use photography as a communication tool,

  • to help bridge the gap between the science and the aesthetics,

  • to get people talking,

  • to get them thinking,

  • and to hopefully, ultimately,

  • get them caring.

  • I started doing this 15 years ago right here in Gainesville,

  • right here in my backyard.

  • And I fell in love with adventure and discovery,

  • going to explore all these different places

  • that were just minutes from my front doorstep.

  • There are a lot of beautiful places to find.

  • Despite all these years that have passed,

  • I still see the world through the eyes of a child

  • and I try to incorporate that sense of wonderment

  • and that sense of curiosity into my photography

  • as often as I can.

  • And we're pretty lucky because here in the South,

  • we're still blessed with a relatively blank canvas

  • that we can fill with the most fanciful adventures

  • and incredible experiences.

  • It's just a matter of how far our imagination will take us.

  • See, a lot of people look at this and they say,

  • "Oh yeah, wow, that's a pretty tree."

  • But I don't just see a tree --

  • I look at this and I see opportunity.

  • I see an entire weekend.

  • Because when I was a kid, these were the types of images

  • that got me off the sofa and dared me to explore,

  • dared me to go find the woods

  • and put my head underwater and see what we have.

  • And folks, I've been photographing all over the world

  • and I promise you,

  • what we have here in the South,

  • what we have in the Sunshine State,

  • rivals anything else that I've seen.

  • But yet our tourism industry is busy promoting all the wrong things.

  • Before most kids are 12, they'll have been to Disney World

  • more times than they've been in a canoe

  • or camping under a starry sky.

  • And I have nothing against Disney or Mickey; I used to go there, too.

  • But they're missing out on those fundamental connections

  • that create a real sense of pride and ownership

  • for the place that they call home.

  • And this is compounded by the issue that the landscapes

  • that define our natural heritage

  • and fuel our aquifer for our drinking water

  • have been deemed as scary and dangerous and spooky.

  • When our ancestors first came here,

  • they warned, "Stay out of these areas, they're haunted.

  • They're full of evil spirits and ghosts."

  • I don't know where they came up with that idea.

  • But it's actually led to a very real disconnect,

  • a very real negative mentality

  • that has kept the public disinterested, silent,

  • and ultimately, our environment at risk.

  • We're a state that's surrounded and defined by water,

  • and yet for centuries,

  • swamps and wetlands have been regarded

  • as these obstacles to overcome.

  • And so we've treated them as these second-class ecosystems,

  • because they have very little monetary value

  • and of course, they're known to harbor alligators and snakes --

  • which, I'll admit, these aren't the most cuddly of ambassadors.

  • (Laughter)

  • So it became assumed, then, that the only good swamp

  • was a drained swamp.

  • And in fact,

  • draining a swamp to make way for agriculture and development

  • was considered the very essence of conservation not too long ago.

  • But now we're backpedaling,

  • because the more we come to learn about these sodden landscapes,

  • the more secrets we're starting to unlock

  • about interspecies relationships

  • and the connectivity of habitats, watersheds and flyways.

  • Take this bird, for example:

  • this is the prothonotary warbler.

  • I love this bird because it's a swamp bird,

  • through and through, a swamp bird.

  • They nest and they mate and they breed in these old-growth swamps

  • in these flooded forests.

  • And so after the spring, after they raise their young,

  • they then fly thousand of miles over the Gulf of Mexico

  • into Central and South America.

  • And then after the winter,

  • the spring rolls around and they come back.

  • They fly thousands of miles over the Gulf of Mexico.

  • And where do they go? Where do they land?

  • Right back in the same tree.

  • That's nuts.

  • This is a bird the size of a tennis ball --

  • I mean, that's crazy!

  • I used a GPS to get here today,

  • and this is my hometown.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's crazy.

  • So what happens, then, when this bird flies over the Gulf of Mexico

  • into Central America for the winter

  • and then the spring rolls around and it flies back,

  • and it comes back to this:

  • a freshly sodded golf course?

  • This is a narrative that's all too commonly unraveling

  • here in this state.

  • And this is a natural process that's occurred for thousands of years

  • and we're just now learning about it.

  • So you can imagine all else we have to learn about these landscapes

  • if we just preserve them first.

  • Now despite all this rich life that abounds in these swamps,

  • they still have a bad name.

  • Many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of wading

  • into Florida's blackwater.

  • I can understand that.

  • But what I loved about growing up in the Sunshine State

  • is that for so many of us,

  • we live with this latent but very palpable fear

  • that when we put our toes into the water,

  • there might be something much more ancient

  • and much more adapted than we are.

  • Knowing that you're not top dog is a welcomed discomfort, I think.

  • How often in this modern and urban and digital age

  • do you actually get the chance to feel vulnerable,

  • or consider that the world may not have been made for just us?

  • So for the last decade,

  • I began seeking out these areas where the concrete yields to forest

  • and the pines turn to cypress,

  • and I viewed all these mosquitoes and reptiles,

  • all these discomforts,

  • as affirmations that I'd found true wilderness,

  • and I embrace them wholly.

  • Now as a conservation photographer obsessed with blackwater,

  • it's only fitting that I'd eventually end up

  • in the most famous swamp of all:

  • the Everglades.

  • Growing up here in North Central Florida,

  • it always had these enchanted names,

  • places like Loxahatchee and Fakahatchee,

  • Corkscrew, Big Cypress.

  • I started what turned into a five-year project

  • to hopefully reintroduce the Everglades in a new light,

  • in a more inspired light.

  • But I knew this would be a tall order, because here you have an area

  • that's roughly a third the size the state of Florida, it's huge.

  • And when I say Everglades,

  • most people are like, "Oh, yeah, the national park."

  • But the Everglades is not just a park; it's an entire watershed,

  • starting with the Kissimmee chain of lakes in the north,

  • and then as the rains would fall in the summer,

  • these downpours would flow into Lake Okeechobee,

  • and Lake Okeechobee would fill up and it would overflow its banks

  • and spill southward, ever slowly, with the topography,

  • and get into the river of grass, the Sawgrass Prairies,

  • before meting into the cypress slews,

  • until going further south into the mangrove swamps,

  • and then finally -- finally -- reaching Florida Bay,

  • the emerald gem of the Everglades,

  • the great estuary,

  • the 850 square-mile estuary.

  • So sure, the national park is the southern end of this system,

  • but all the things that make it unique are these inputs that come in,

  • the fresh water that starts 100 miles north.

  • So no manner of these political or invisible boundaries

  • protect the park from polluted water or insufficient water.

  • And unfortunately, that's precisely what we've done.

  • Over the last 60 years,

  • we have drained, we have dammed, we have dredged the Everglades

  • to where now only one third of the water that used to reach the bay

  • now reaches the bay today.

  • So this story is not all sunshine and rainbows, unfortunately.

  • For better or for worse,

  • the story of the Everglades is intrinsically tied

  • to the peaks and the valleys of mankind's relationship

  • with the natural world.

  • But I'll show you these beautiful pictures,

  • because it gets you on board.

  • And while I have your attention, I can tell you the real story.

  • It's that we're taking this,

  • and we're trading it for this,

  • at an alarming rate.

  • And what's lost on so many people

  • is the sheer scale of which we're discussing.

  • Because the Everglades is not just responsible for the drinking water

  • for 7 million Floridians;

  • today it also provides the agricultural fields

  • for the year-round tomatoes and oranges

  • for over 300 million Americans.

  • And it's that same seasonal pulse of water in the summer

  • that built the river of grass 6,000 years ago.

  • Ironically, today, it's also responsible for the over half a million acres

  • of the endless river of sugarcane.

  • These are the same fields that are responsible

  • for dumping exceedingly high levels of fertilizers into the watershed,

  • forever changing the system.

  • But in order for you to not just understand how this system works,

  • but to also get personally connected to it,

  • I decided to break the story down into several different narratives.

  • And I wanted that story to start in Lake Okeechobee,

  • the beating heart of the Everglade system.

  • And to do that, I picked an ambassador,

  • an iconic species.

  • This is the Everglade snail kite.

  • It's a great bird,

  • and they used to nest in the thousands,

  • thousands in the northern Everglades.

  • And then they've gone down to about 400 nesting pairs today.

  • And why is that?

  • Well, it's because they eat one source of food, an apple snail,

  • about the size of a ping-pong ball, an aquatic gastropod.

  • So as we started damming up the Everglades,

  • as we started diking Lake Okeechobee and draining the wetlands,

  • we lost the habitat for the snail.

  • And thus, the population of the kites declined.

  • And so, I wanted a photo that would not only communicate this relationship

  • between wetland, snail and bird,

  • but I also wanted a photo that would communicate

  • how incredible this relationship was,

  • and how very important it is that they've come to depend on each other,

  • this healthy wetland and this bird.

  • And to do that, I brainstormed this idea.