MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Slogging through the slough on what was a very chilly Saturday morning, Luca Martinez is in his element.
“Sometimes I just try and find the beauty right off the road,” he said. “For me this is probably the most special spot in the Everglades.”
It was there, deep in the wild of Big Cypress National Park, that Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre meet up with the 18-year-old Palmer Trinity High School senior inside the perfect awesomeness of a cypress dome.
“My first location off trail,” Martinez said, referring to what he calls a natural church that he visits. “It has that cathedral entrance.”
It is in fact hallowed ground for Martinez, an emerging wildlife photographer, who’s become an overnight champion of the Everglades.
“I’m connected to it and completely in love with this place,” he said.
The subtropical wilderness called out to Martinez during the pandemic. He’s now spent the last two years exploring and documenting one of most unique and complex ecosystems on the planet, and then posting his work on social media.
His Tiktok and Instagram videos have made Martinez a viral sensation, with millions of likes and hundreds of thousands of followers who flock to his platforms to experience the magical wonders of a place that remains so misunderstood by so many.
“I posted a video here of this underwater world, the clear water, all these aquatic plants, and now I hit 12,000,000 views. And people couldn’t believe that this was the Everglades. People were saying that it wasn’t the Everglades, that I’m lying,” he said.
What Martinez was in fact doing was revealing the truth of the beauty that lies beneath.
A compilation video of his beloved Everglades now has over 25 million views on TikTok. But he doesn’t do it for the likes.
“Because beyond the beautiful facade, beyond all of this beauty, beyond my beautiful videos lies the reality that this place has been giving me life is dying,” he said.
For 175 years humans have sliced and diced and dredged and diverted the historical natural flow of the Everglades watershed from Lake Okeechobee down to Florida Bay, with devastating results.
“Now, right now, one quarter that water makes it out. So we need people to care,” said Martinez.
Half of the Everglades are gone, it’s native inhabitants both flora and fauna fast disappearing, and though restoration efforts are ongoing, so is encroachment and development, paving over what remains of wild Florida.
With his videos, Martinez is loudly sounding the alarm.
“I hope that my videos get people to care,” he said. “Get people to see that this place is so much more than a swamp. It’s a place that we rely on, you know? What’s this place worth to you? What’s the biodiversity worth? Even more than that, what’s your drinking water worth to you as a Floridian? And you know that that’s why I do it.”
Martinez now takes his message to schools, speaking to kids and inspiring them.
More than just a photographer, Martinez is a storyteller.
At 18 years old, his work is now featured on the Everglades Foundation UNESCO’s World Heritage Google Platform, where he hopes to engage even more people to join his mission.
With his powerful images, Martinez beckons all of us to give the river of grass a chance.
“Because you’ll fall in love with this wild, the same way I have,” he said. “And that’s what it’s about. Because when you love something you care to protect it. It’s only when you love something that you’ll fight for it.
“What gives me hope is that the wild will never stopped fighting back. Never. This place is so resilient. That’s what gives me hope.”
Last month the South Florida Water Management District announced a new project to redirect badly needed fresh water south into thirsty Florida Bay by ripping open parts of an abandoned highway inside Everglades National Park.
More projects are on the way. The federal government has earmarked $447 million for restoration, which is a new record.
In January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis committed to spend $3.5 billion on Everglades restoration over the next four years.
For Martinez, all this can’t happen fast enough.
FOLLOW LUCA MARTINEZ ON SOCIAL MEDIA