Photographer Luca Martinez Shows the Everglades as You’ve Never Seen It

The Florida native uses his adventurous spirit and knack for storytelling to capture the swamp's natural splendor.

BY September 1, 2023
Luca Martinez
Photographer Luca Martinez (Photo by Dan Cutrona)

Until this assignment, I didn’t know the work of photographer Luca Martinez. But my 18-year-old daughter sure did. “You’re interviewing him?” she asks when I mention my upcoming call. “I follow him. His stuff is always on my feed.”

“You know he’s your age, right?” I ask.

Yes, the next great conservation photographer is a teenager from Miami, who has amassed more than 200,000 Instagram followers, tallied 150 million TikTok views, caught the eye of documentary filmmaker Phil Fairclough, produced an online Everglades exhibition for Google Arts & Culture with the Everglades Foundation, authored an article for Oceanographic magazine and its global audience, and served as a keynote speaker at events such as a World Water Day celebration, held at Florida Gulf Coast University last March.

If I had to guess, Luca would tell me to quit listing accolades and dedicate my word count allotment to the subject of his lens: the Florida Everglades. Even as the media devote more coverage to environmental matters and the government pours billions into Everglades restoration, the young man finds a “dangerous disconnect” between the average Floridian—including young people like him—and the River of Grass. “It’s just not being taught,” he says of Florida’s imperiled ecosystem. “To me, the Everglades was dangerous. I was taught it was dirty. And, honestly, that a good swamp is a drained swamp.”

Luca was a teenager before he stepped foot in the Everglades, but his fascination with the outdoors emerged early, inspired by regular outings to his grandfather’s vacation home in the Florida Keys. He could snorkel before he could walk—a skill he would later deploy to capture groundbreaking images of the underwater Everglades ecosystem. He got his first GoPro camera when he was 9 and his first DSLR, a Nikon D-3500, at 13 as a Christmas gift, when he was seized by a desire to capture nature in action. (Incidentally, he has purchased nearly all his own gear ever since, through the sale of his images or commercial gigs.)

Luca’s former school, Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay (he graduated this past spring), halted in-person learning due to COVID-19 in March 2020, his freshman year, and didn’t fully reopen until near the end of his sophomore one. Luca duly logged in for online classes and then escaped outdoors to practice photography. He studied nature photography giants—National Geographic explorers and fellow Floridians Mac Stone and Carlton Ward Jr. and the eminent black-and-white photographic artist Clyde Butcher—scoured YouTube for technical how-to videos and spent hours practicing his craft. 

He wondered: Where did backyard birds and small mammals come from? To find out, Luca and his dad ventured to Shark Valley in Everglades National Park. It was his first sojourn into the wilderness that lies just beyond the urban boundary. “I was looking at tens of thousands of islands, sitting on a sea of sawgrass. There were reflective pools everywhere. The pig frogs were croaking, the barred owls were calling. It was nature like I had never heard it, in full surround sound,” he recalls.

On day-long treks, Luca developed a painterly quality to his photographs and a cinematic one to his videos. He became fascinated with owls (his mom’s favorite animal) and found the nesting spot of a barred owl pair, a majestic species with all-knowing eyes and speckled plumage. He returned every week for a year, producing a stunning series of the birds in flight and at rest, bathed in golden sunlight. They are a mascot for this wilderness—the bait that allows Luca to draw audiences into Florida’s wild and educate them about habitat loss and human encroachment. The female owl died from an automobile collision, an all-too-common fate. Luca told that story. His audience needed to hear it. 

About a year and a half ago, he acquired an underwater camera, dove into the Glades and emerged an internet sensation. His videos show a world just below the surface, dancing with submerged plants and abounding with aquatic life (yes, gators included). Viewers—millions of them—are astounded. “People couldn’t believe this was the Everglades. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is how I’ll get to people; this is how I’m going to share my message and get numbers behind the story and help people better understand the real story of the real Florida.”

He learned to hone the power of platforms like TikTok, popular among the young, to grow a new generation of environmental champions.

Luca doesn’t rely on images alone. He has embarked on a deep study of Florida history, the draining of the Glades and the efforts to revive them. He reaches out to scientists, policy experts, conservation photographers, tribal leaders and others to better understand Everglades-related issues. He infuses his social media posts with information about what we’ve lost, how we can regain it and why protecting this vast wilderness is so critical. He says he dedicates more time to crafting his words than perfecting his images. That’s what he thinks sets his work apart from others. “Wildlife images are only as valuable as the story you tell in connection with them,” he says. “I try to bring a human aspect to the story and connect to people through that.”

Dan Cutrona; Luca Martinez’s Flats of the Florida Bay (2023)
Luca often shows lesser-known and unexpected views of the ecosystem, like the deep veining on the shores of Florida Bay, shown from a helicopter, or underwater shots of sea creatures. [Luca Martinez’s Flats of the Florida Bay (2023)]
Luca Martinez’s A Barred Owl’s Early Flight (2023)
[Luca Martinez’s A Barred Owl’s Early Flight (2023)]
Luca Martinez’s Ghost Orchid (2022)
At 18, Luca is becoming a foremost advocate for Everglades conservation. His painterly photographs and cinematic videos are often accompanied by informative facts and moving observations on nature. [Luca Martinez’s Ghost Orchid (2022)]

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