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id="article-body" section="articleBody"> This story is part of Road Trip 2019, profiles of the troublemakers and trailblazers who are designing our future. As she crouches precariously on the uneven shoreline of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a protected area just outside of Tulum in Mexico's Quintana Roo state, Cristina Mittermeier shakes her head. "Some days, it's hard to be optimistic," says the 52-year-old marine biologist, photographer and co-founder of ocean conservation nonprofit SeaLegacy.

Instead of the pristine white beaches you see in Tulum tourist brochures -- Quintana Roo is home to the resort city of Cancún -- the ground below us is a tangle of plastic debris and crunchy, stinking seaweed, piled high over the packed sand. The brown mass undulates down the coast like rotting sand dunes; the persistent wind carries its rotten egg stench far beyond the boundaries of the beach. As Mittermeier rifles through the plastic graveyard taking photos, her feet sink into the mass with each step. 

Mittermeier isn't here as a tourist. Her mission is to protect the oceans by sharing arresting images of climate change and the local communities most affected by it. Her hope is that the images -- her Instagram account has 1.2 million followers -- will act as a catalyst for a movement, inspiring more people to advocate for the environment. 

Oceans are on the front line of climate change. They cover 70 percent of the world's surface and contribute more than half of the oxygen we breathe every day. They regulate the climate and provide food and ingredients used in medicine for cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. But the oceans are in danger. They work overtime to absorb the heat generated by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The gases change the pH of the water, damaging coral reefs and harming marine animals, which more than 3 billion people rely on for their main source of protein.

"The oceans are so big and so remote that people don't understand how our food is caught, and just how fragile [the oceans] are," Mittermeier says. "Don't you want to join in this vision of a future where our children can aspire to a clean beach -- and maybe some breathing air?"

Not only does sargassum seaweed smell awful, it poses health risks to humans and sea life when it reaches the coast. 

Sarah Tew/CNET Stinking seaweed
The seaweed is called sargassum -- "it sounds like a sassy orgasm," Mittermeier had joked earlier, sounding out the oddly named algae. Sargassum began to take over beaches like Sian Ka'an and other areas of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico in 2011. Studies link its coastal invasion to deforestation in the Amazon. As forests in Brazil are cut down to make way for farmland, fertilizer used for the crops flows directly into the Amazon River when it rains. Eventually, the fertilizer reaches the ocean, changing the nutrients in the water and causing sargassum to bloom out of control. 

As we walk on the beach, each wave brings in more sargassum, piling it higher and higher over sand once frequented by turtles to lay their eggs. There are bottle caps, toothbrushes, lighters -- pieces of people's lives, long ago discarded -- that surfed the ocean currents to get here. 

I need to get up tomorrow and try even harder than today, because I cannot imagine a planet in which my children have to live in this postapocalyptic world. Cristina Mittermeier Candace Crespi, campaigns manager for the Blue Sphere Foundation, is here, too. The Blue Sphere Foundation is an ocean conservation organization that acts as SeaLegacy's fiscal sponsor, making it possible for Christmasiscoming SeaLegacy to ask for grants and tax-deductible donations under Blue Sphere Foundation's nonprofit status. Crespi is Mittermeier's assistant in the field, but like Mittermeier, she's also a biologist, a conservationist and an experienced diver. 

The two form a strong partnership. Mittermeier calls Crespi her Swiss Army knife, because of her varied skills; Crespi considers Mittermeier a role model. "Cristina is the epitome of selfless commitment without ego ... always humble and willing to go the extra mile to make this world a better place for all beings," Crespi says. "Watching Cristina in her element makes it impossible not to be inspired and want to help in some way."

Crespi (left) and Mittermeier (right) work together to get videos of plastic waste and sargassum for Instagram.

Sarah Tew/CNET Mittermeier has dedicated her life to protecting oceans and documenting climate change in far-flung places, from Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands to French Polynesia and beyond, but she began walking these very beaches 30 years ago. She now lives in British Columbia with her partner and SeaLegacy co-founder, Paul Nicklen. But she returns to her native Mexico regularly. Each time she visits, she notices drastic changes. 

On her last trip to Sian Ka'an five years ago, plastic waste was the main problem. Now the plastic is dwarfed by the sargassum. It's the new "normal," it seems. But even when she's surrounded by mountains of garbage and an invasive seaweed, she's far from resignation. "I need to get up tomorrow and try even harder than today, because I cannot imagine a planet in which my children have to live in this postapocalyptic world."

Over email, Nicklen says Mittermeier is extraordinarily compassionate, but feisty when necessary. "She's not scared of diving with sharks or jumping into Arctic waters, and she doesn't back down when presented with an opportunity to stand up against environmental or social injustices."

Her advice to herself, and to anyone else overwhelmed by environmental issues, is to take action today. "I want a better future for them and for your children, too," she says. "I get up [every day and do this work] because I have to. And if I can do it with a smile, even better."

Dreaming of dolphins 
Mittermeier was born in Mexico City in 1966 and grew up in Cuernavaca, a town of about 350,000, roughly two hours south of the capital. She's the second of five siblings; she has an older brother and three younger sisters. 

She fell in love with the ocean at a young age, even though her childhood in landlocked Cuernavaca didn't exactly set her up for this life. "As a young teenager I imagined myself swimming with dolphins, but I didn't know how to make it happen," she says. 

Mittermeier snorkels in Casa Cenote, a sinkhole near Tulum.

Candace Crespi Her dad was an accountant, her mom a psychologist. Though her parents didn't have a "special affinity to nature," as Mittermeier puts it, they encouraged her early love for it. She attended summer camp in the US and in Canada, where she learned English, swam in icy lakes and learned how to canoe and kayak. At home, she'd sneak into her brother's room and read his pirate books, imagining far-off places. 

Science also drove her education. She earned an undergraduate degree in biochemical engineering in marine sciences from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in 1989 and at her friend's urging, moved the same year to Akumal, a coastal town 30 minutes north of Sian Ka'an.

She got a job cataloging the wildlife in the area through her friend's uncle and helped establish protections for turtle nesting sites, which led to the development of an ecological center that's still there today. Mittermeier also earned her dive certification in Akumal in 1989. Akumal is just 30 minutes north of Tulum, so we make a brief stop there on our way to Sian Ka'an, heading south from Cancún. A lot has changed since her last visit five years ago.

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