‘What I loved was dying’: The next generation works to change perception of the Everglades

Thirteen-year-old Luca Martinez’s curiosity was sparked after he watched an osprey spot its prey and begin a rapid descent, plunging into the water to catch its meal. 

Inspired by what he’d seen, Martinez got his hands on a camera and began to photograph birds around his Miami-Dade neighborhood.

After learning that the origin of the birds he snapped pictures of could be traced back to the Everglades, Martinez began repeated excursions there to uncover the beauty of the national park. Now at 19, Martinez uses his striking visual work, distributed through his social media platforms, to encourage a younger crowd to appreciate the river of grass and its mysterious intricacies.

Flooding, pollution, climate change and being home to several endangered species are just a few of the several threats facing the Everglades, the largest tropical wilderness in the U.S., covering over 1.5 million acres and attracting 1 million visitors annually. Its future looks grim if major conservation efforts aren’t undertaken. 

“I started advocating because what I loved was dying,” said Martinez. “I didn’t advocate to gain all this traction, I advocate to share with the people around me what is happening.”

FIU Doctoral candidate Tommy Shannon (left) explaining his dissertation to Luca Martinez (right) in Washington D.C. on Tuesday Nov.14 for FIU’s Fly-In, where students advocated for the future of the Everglades. (Courtesy of FIU D.C.)

One solution is spreading Everglades literacy, particularly to the next generation of conservationists.

The Everglades Foundation is a non-profit that serves as a source of scientific research for the wetlands and is one of the most influential participants in the effort to preserve the Everglades. 

The organization also provides an Everglades Literacy program that supplies K-12 teachers across Florida the sources and knowledge to educate their students about the importance of the Everglades.

Bianca Cassouto, the organization’s education program manager, said the foundation works to nurture lifelong interest in the park among students, teachers and the greater community. 

“Whether I am facilitating a teacher training or student presentation, it’s amazing to see people light up as they learn more about where their water comes from, how to explore wet and dry habitats, the incredible wildlife that lives here, and that ultimately the Everglades is their backyard,” said Cassouto. 

To date, the literacy program has reached 30 school districts, 6,000 teachers and 175,000 students, she said. 

“There are generations of Floridians who are not aware of how important the Everglades is to Florida,” said Cassouto. “As the vital efforts of Everglades restoration take center stage, it is important to recognize the key to long-term sustainability rests on the shoulders of the next generation understanding the ecological and economic value of the Everglades.”

The Everglades National Park provides one third of Floridians their drinking water. 

Its future will affect the entire state and students want to help.

Baylee Holcomb,19, was born and raised in a small town north of Tampa and moved to Miami to study environmental engineering at Florida International University. Holcomb said she wants to go into conservation and hopes to help the environment through engineering.

“I was never raised on Everglades education coming from a different part of Florida,” said Holcomb.

Before moving to Miami, Holcomb said she would hear words with negative connotations to describe the Everglades. “Dirty,” “swamp,” “alligators” and “dangerous” were a few. 

“It’s the wrong perspective to look at,” said Holcomb. “It’s beautiful. The nature, the sunrises, the flowers.”

Baylee Holcomb (right) taking notes during a panel discussing adaptive management strategies for coastal resilience next to Amanda di Perna (left) at FIU in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday  Nov.14. (Courtesy of FIU D.C.)

The Everglades literacy program and Martinez are combating the issue of the wetlands’ negative perception through their work, advocating for its beauty and importance that is often overlooked. 

Through presentations at schools, museums, and wherever he is given a platform, Martinez expresses his concern about the future of the park with a mosaic of his photography and videos.

One of the bigger presentations Martinez spoke at recently was alongside Mac Stone, a National Geographic photographer, at the Four Arts museum in Palm Beach.

“I had a girl come up to me and she was emotional,” said Martinez. “She said she started following me [on social media] a couple years ago and it’s because of my work that she’s in environmental law.”

Florida alligator photographed by Luca Martinez (Courtesy of Luca Martinez)

This has been one of the most touching moments in Martinez’s advocacy journey so far, but there is still a long road ahead. 

“The Everglades — it’s like a different kind of wild,” he said. “So wild that it requires your full attention and your time.” 

Sophia Bolivar is a senior at FIU majoring in digital journalism and focusing her studies on criminal justice. Sharing a love for both writing and photography has led her to pursue a career in journalism.