It’s an hour before dawn, somewhere off the coast of Baja, Mexico. One of the eight residents of the SeaLegacy 1, a 62-foot sailboat, is beginning to stir from their bunk. It’s hard to sleep in late—for one thing, the quarters are cramped. Once someone is up, everyone is up. But also, occupants of this vessel are in a race against time, and the sense of urgency in their work pulses louder than any alarm clock. Today, they’re hoping to film fevers of mobula rays, or possibly pods of giant blue whales, or maybe orcas.
The SeaLegacy 1 is the office, home, and workshop of Paul Nicklen, 54, and Cristina Mittermeier, 54, life partners and two of the cofounders of SeaLegacy, a small organization of photographers and videographers documenting ocean destruction in real time. In theory, Nicklen and Mittermeier’s job is simple: They publish images from their perch in the Pacific. In practice, Nicklen and Mittermeier also have to make people care. And they have to do it all from the sailboat’s closet-turned–media room outfitted with one small desk for their MacBooks and a shelf of hard drives. It’s a setup that has only recently been made possible by digital leaps forward.
“It was just a few years ago that when you would dive with an IMAX camera, it weighed 500 pounds. It took two divers to operate it,” Nicklen says. When the team hauled that camera back up to the boat, “You had to take that film and put it in cold storage, and then you had to fly it out immediately before humidity got to it.” And then it couldn’t be dealt with until the SeaLegacy team returned to their desktop computers at their home office in Canada.
Documenting the oceans took time, but that luxury is no longer afforded to us. Humans are destroying our oceans at an unprecedented rate. Eighty percent of fisheries are overfished or outright collapsing. More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic inhabit our oceans. The coral reefs are dying, jeopardizing the stability of 1 million species that rely on the reefs for habitat.
Mittermeier compares our planet to a spaceship. “If you were to open the spaceship’s hood,” she says, “the engine of our planet is the ocean. It’s what moderates the climate, what allows for enough photosynthesis in plant and marine vegetation for oxygen.”
And those are just the pieces we understand. Our knowledge of the depths of our oceans is still so sparse, Mittermeier says, we may not be aware of the extent of the damage we’re doing to the oceans. “It’s just like, we’re going to throw away all these nuts and bolts because we don’t know what they are, but we might need them.”
On the sunny day currently shaping up aboard the SeaLegacy 1, the team will charge 40 lithium batteries to power drones, cameras, computers, and all the other tech on board. Most days, the SeaLegacy 1 runs wholly off solar power. But that means the team’s tech—from the appliances in their kitchen to the computers in the media closet—has to be vigorously energy efficient. There’s no backup at 50 miles out to sea.
Growing up in Mexico City, Mittermeier—whose 1.5 million Instagram followers know as “Mitty”—always wanted to be a marine biologist. She spent the 1990s studying biodiversity loss and its correlation to violent conflict, and her research was published in a prominent journal. But then? Nothing happened. “It was never picked up, really, by popular science,” she says, meaning that mainstream media passed on by with little more than a mention.
So Mittermeier picked up a camera and tried a different way to get her message across.
Nicklen, a longtime National Geographic photographer specializing in documenting the Arctic, had a similar epiphany. Regularly appearing in National Geographic is a dream for most photographers. But Nicklen found the editorial process to be slow and frustrating. Sometimes it would take months to get a story to publication. Images could be cut because they were simply too depressing. “And then in 2014 when we started seeing bears starving in the Arctic, it became very urgent, very scary,” he says. Waiting around for a story to go to press didn’t seem prudent. He and Mittermeier realized that, instead, they could build their own platform.
In 2017, Mittermeier’s image of a starving polar bear—like a deflated accordion with angular hip bones and shoulder blades sandwiching a sagging middle—shot across every corner of the internet. “Sometimes you have to be shocked, and the only thing that can shock you is a photograph,” says Michelle Bogre, photographer and author of the 2011 book Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change. “You can look away from words,” she says, adding, “It’s much harder to look away from a photograph.”
Mittermeier and Nicklen know the power of images. But they also understand that the forces they’re up against—the rogue waves and extreme weather, the saltwater trying to make its way into their electronics—are powerful, too. They know that dive equipment can fail, and when it does, your lungs fail shortly thereafter. And they know that apathy and inaction are their own kind of force. There’s a chance that every image they take will be another thing people scroll past.
Luckily, Nicklen and Mittermeier have a strategy. “I relate it to boxing, and that’s jab, jab, punch,” says Nicklen. Much of their feed is little jabs: cute animal pictures to keep you engaged. Nothing scary. But then he switches gears: “Once you have them all warmed up, and they love you, and they’re on this journey with you, then you can punch them in the face with a heavy-hitting issue like the slaughter of the dolphins in the Faroe Islands or starving polar bears.”
And as for broadcasting these images from the middle of the ocean, it’s a revolution in computer chip technology that’s made their floating media studio—a mini Hollywood of the high seas capable of producing world-class films—possible.
Here’s the general problem with computer chips: The more powerful they are, the more electrical energy they need, since chips use electrical circuits to complete calculations. Back in the early 2000s, some chip manufacturers decided that the future of chips was in speed—more calculations per second meant a faster chip. But that came at the cost of efficiency.
Because no one wants a laptop that gets hot enough to cook eggs and has an awful battery life, chip manufacturers had to start thinking about ways to make a chip that sipped—not gulped—electricity. That’s fortunate for folks, say, working in a tiny office on a boat that runs off solar power.
Apple—which makes the laptops and M1 Max chips used on SeaLegacy 1—was already on the inefficiency problem years before it was a common concern, says Tim Millet, who leads Apple’s Platform Architecture Team in Hardware Technologies. Apple didn’t design chips back in the early 2000s—in fact, until recently, the company bought chips for its laptops and desktops from major chip manufacturers like Intel. But their chip development was born from Steve Jobs’s quest to bring to market a pocket-size computer that was also a phone, Millet says.
The goal was to build a chip that could be so energy efficient it could power this type of dual device. It also had to do its job without a loud fan or becoming so hot you’d need oven mitts to pick up a call.
There are a few ways to make chips more efficient. First: improve a chip’s efficiency by reducing the amount of distance electrons have to travel to complete their circuits. Think of this like suburbia versus a city. If a computer processes one type of data on the CPU (central processing unit) and another type on the GPU (graphics processing unit), and stores data yet somewhere else, that’s like driving five miles to the grocery store, then five miles to a friend’s house for drinks, then 10 miles home. But Apple’s chips are all “systems on a chip,” which means one single giant chip runs the entire computer—like in a city center where you can walk down the block for groceries and up another block to see your friend.
The systems-on-a-chip design allows the computer to streamline how it runs based on what it’s being asked to do in any given moment. If it has to put a lot of effort into graphics processing, it can shunt that work to the most powerful core processors. Easier tasks can be diverted to secondary processors, which keeps SeaLegacy’s MacBook Pros humming without burning through batteries.
Chip designers also have to address something called leakage, which occurs if the distance electrons travel is reduced by too much. Because transistors on chips create electrical circuits, electrons can leak out of those circuits ending in a whole lot of wasted energy. The push to put more and more transistors onto chips can go too far, when the transistors are so small and so thin that they don’t insulate current well. So using a combination of transistors at different speeds can help.
In addition, if you want a chip to run efficiently without gobbling watts, you need a chip that excels at not working. “As you are sitting in front of your computer right now, I would probably say about 80 percent of your chip is off, and that’s by design,” says Millet. “We aggressively turn off everything we can when your computer doesn’t need it.” The trick, of course, is to make sure the chip is still responsive so that the human operating it doesn’t realize it’s snoozing on the job.
All this means is that, when the day’s dive ends, “We yank the cards out of the cameras, run downstairs, stick them in a card reader, and within five or 10 minutes, we can be looking at the visuals,” says Nicklen.
“We’re an autonomous hub of content creation now. On any given day we can shoot four to five terabytes of footage,” he says.
The days start at dawn and run well past sunset. There’s gear to prep—both camera and snorkel equipment. Then they have to locate the animals. That can take hours of sailing and scanning the horizon. Sometimes, they’ll spot a pod of dolphins, gear up, get into the water, and realize the dolphins have already moved on. At some point someone—sometimes Mittermeier, sometimes Jess Todd-Marrone, the boat’s captain—makes lunch for the crew. They may also stop to fix one of the many little things that are always breaking. “We’re a bunch of Swiss Army knives,” says Nicklen.
On a recent trip in the Galápagos, Nicklen got caught in a current while out filming. “The seas were about eight feet tall, and the boat driver couldn’t see me when I got flushed out to sea. For 45 minutes, I traveled in a four-knot current. I had 15 sharks around me,” he says. Then he remembered Mittermeier had a plan for this exact scenario. Nicklen pulled out a GPS locator beacon and sent out a ping.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t be surprising that it was a tiny bit of tech that kept Nicklen alive that day. Because it’s tech that they believe will allow them to keep the oceans alive. Some of that is mind- bending—like the billions of transistors running in the media room, or a pocket-size projector that beams out images in 4K. Some of that tech, like Freddy the cantankerous ice machine, isn’t particularly impressive but is still important to the mission. (“Our moods really are dictated by the success of our filming and our ice maker,” Nicklen says, half joking.)
In late May, SeaLegacy wrapped up two months of work in the waters off Baja, Mexico. They reached out to a local environmental group about showing their work to folks in the nearby fishing community. The organization helped secure a dirt lot and a few extension cords to reach an electrical outlet. “Being able to share with the people locally is incredible,” Mittermeier says. About 50 families watched and ate burritos as images of sharks, whales, rays, and fish swam across a portable screen. “The kids came, and there was face painting. Then they look at these images and you see them light up,” Mittermeier says. “It’s very powerful.”
Most of the time, Mittermeier and Nicklen can only measure their impact in likes and shares. To see their work reflected in the faces of children is like tightening those nuts and bolts and seeing a light come on. To them, this is how they can achieve the most good: by broadcasting the realities of our oceans—in all its glory and horror—through their cameras, then their computers, and finally out into the world.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect age for Mittermeier. It's since been updated.