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In the wild: It starts with an owl in the Everglades
Photo courtesy of Luca Martinez

In the wild: It starts with an owl in the Everglades

To celebrate Nature Photography Day on June 15, sophomore Luca Martinez shares three of his favorite photos and discusses how the images tell an important story.

June 14, 2024 at 8:23am

Nature Photography Day is June 15. To celebrate, FIU News sat down with just a few of the Panthers who love wildlife so much that they're using photography to share the wonders of the natural world with everyone.

In this piece, we feature sophomore Luca Martinez, a nature photographer and videographer whose passion project sharing photos of the Everglades on social media skyrocketed into a career as a photographer-conservationist. Check out FIU News to read the entire series, spotlighting various Panther photographers and the stories behind some of their favorite photos. Nature Photography Day is designated by the North American Nature Photography Association and is meant to promote an appreciation of nature photography and the role photography plays in helping people learn about wildlife. 

Images are stories. Luca Martinez understands this. 

"Nature photography is a visual way to share important stories," Martinez says. "It's a way to connect people with the real problems facing our environment. It's a way to bring people to worlds they may never otherwise see."

During COVID lockdown, Martinez, who was 15 at the time, spent hours hiking through the Everglades, veering off paths and exploring beautiful places he never imagined existed within the national park. He'd heard people talk about pythons, alligators and swamps in the Everglades, but he'd never heard about crystal-clear waters, huge fish and vibrant green plants. 

He began to photograph the wonders he saw and to share his photos on social media. His viewers grew exponentially, and his project quickly transformed into a career as a photographer-conservationist and public speaker. Martinez has been featured in dozens of media stories, from NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt to Fox Weather and Channel 10’s “Don’t Trash Our Treasure” with Louis Aguirre. Martinez appeared on the cover of Aventura magazine, and his work is showcased in the “River of Grass” exhibit in UNESCO’s World Heritage Collection on the Google Arts and Culture Platform.

Martinez is currently a sophomore at FIU, majoring in sustainability and the environment. He received the university’s first Provost’s Undergraduate Environmental Resilience Fellowship. He is a contributing writer for Oceanographic Magazine and regularly speaks to local and national audiences about conservation.

He recently completed a set of talks at schools and universities across the country, in which he discussed with students the importance of preserving the environment and the role of the Everglades in Florida's ecological landscape. 

Below are three photographs that are not only dear to Martinez's heart, but that also tell the story behind his passion: conserving the Everglades.

The last flight

Getting to know a quiet, mostly nocturnal owl might be difficult. But Martinez loved the challenge. He spent a year observing and photographing a barred owl couple in the Everglades. 

"I watched as they surveyed the prairie, as they took care of their chicks, as their chicks left the nest, as they took occasional risky flights while it was still light out."

These owls became a beautiful part of the Everglades for Martinez. The owl pictured in this photo is the female of the couple. The black and white color of the photo shares with viewers the magical, other-worldly feel of the moment as Martinez watched the majestic owl.

But soon after the photo was taken, everything changed. 

"The female owl was struck and hit by a car," Martinez says. "She was killed. This was the last photo that I ever took of her."

Martinez says this owl's fate exemplifies the situation certain animals in the Everglades are facing. "As we’ve constructed, we're slicing and dicing their habitats," he says. "The animals don’t know where the roads are, they just go where they need to find food. Barred owls are particularly vulnerable because they tend to silently hunt at the same height as vehicles."

In the dark, it would be very difficult for a person driving a car to see the owl hunting.  

For Martinez, this photo captures the last bit of what was a wonderful year observing the owl couple. It also acts as a memorial, shedding light on the urgency of conservation.

"It’s a reminder of how quiet, how still she was, how she would come out of nowhere," Martinez says. "It's one of my favorite photos."

Vibrant and clear

Ever seen the Everglades from beneath the surface? This is what it looks like from the waters of a cypress dome — a type of freshwater forest wetland that Martinez considers one of the most intriguing ecosystems in the Everglades.

The view is fascinating. Many people might find it unexpected, too. Before entering the cypress dome, Martinez, like many of us, had thought the waters of the Everglades would be murky and lifeless. What he discovered took his breath away. For Martinez, this photo marked a turning point in his goals.

"This is what really got me to fall in love with the underwater world and motivated me to start swimming in the Everglades," he says. "This photo is really special to me because before this, I had only been on trails, boardwalks and dry pieces of the Everglades. I had never really hiked into the water. This was my first time in a cypress dome."

From then on, Martinez focused on capturing the beauty of the Everglades underwater — and sharing those photographs with the world to dispel common myths about what the Everglades looks like from beneath the waves. 

Pulled apart or brought together?

This aerial photo might not be your typical nature picture, but it's an intriguing one. Martinez took a helicopter ride across South and Central Florida all the way down to the Florida Bay. That's when he snapped this photo. 

"From up there, you see the [Everglades] system is so massive," he says. "You're watching those mangrove trees turn into the ocean and the ocean turn into the roads and the roads turn into houses. It just tells the story. Probably one of the most stark things is that a place that we are so disconnected from is sitting right next to us. For the past 100 years, we've been trading what you see on the left for what you see on the right in this photo."

He says the owl, underwater and aerial photos taken together all show the story he wants to share with people — the story of why preserving the Everglades is so important. 

“The question is not ‘Whether or not this place is worth saving,’ but ‘What is this place worth to you?’”

Check out all the stories in the nature photography series.