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Conservation Photographer Jennifer Adler on Looking Beneath the Surface

Jenny Adler put her mask on, held her camera underwater for a few seconds to set it up, and in an instant she was floating in a dark and muddy circular pool of water, in the middle of the forest. “I want to see if the light is any good today,” she had told me as we arrived at Gilchrist Blue Springs, in Central Florida. As Jenny moved gracefully around the circle taking pictures, I stood by the trees outside trying to find an excuse not to go in. But, every time Jenny dove down below the surface, and disappeared into the unknown, curiosity tugged me closer towards the edge. So naturally, I jumped in.

“In Cuba, they call them ‘ojos del agua’ (eyes of the water),” Jenny says on our first interview a few months earlier. As I dove deeper down and looked up at the cypress trees surrounding the pool of water like the iris of an eye, I understood. Different shades of blue hugged every corner, while silver ringlets rose to the top around us. All you could hear was your own breath. It’s a world that feels distant, but is closer to us that we think. “The spring is directly connected to the aquifer, so the water flowing up from the aquifer comes right out at the springs. We don’t use that saying as much as they [Cubans] do… I think that reflects their different relationship with water. They understand the connection more than we do in some ways,” she says.

Photograph by Jennifer Adler: "That Friday flying feeling.. @ally_okell soars amongst treetops at @ginniesprings..."

From a young age, conservation photographer and National Geographic Explorer Jennifer Adler’s love for the ocean became a catalyst for exploration. “I think when I realized I wanted my life to involve the water, in my work, was when I finally got the chance to take my first breath underwater,” she says. While studying marine biology at Brown University, Jennifer got scuba-certified, which not only allowed her to take her research and data collecting skills to a new level, but also changed the way she would continue to interact with water. “Before the photography, it’s the immersion, it’s physically being there,” she explains, and says that without that experience, her love of the ocean would probably not have turned into a need to understand it.

Photograph by Ian Segebarth. Tannic water swirling in from the Santa Fe river as Jenny mounts her camera on a log to shoot 360 images in Devil's Ear, the entrance to a cave system with almost 6 miles of mapped underwater cave in north Florida.

To walk on water, in the colloquial sense of the phrase, is to do something or be someone extraordinary. But for Floridians, more than an idiom for greatness, the phrase is a reality we often ignore. Jennifer has spent the last six years studying and documenting the world beneath our feet. A world full of aquifers that supply more than 90 percent of drinking water to people in Florida, and that, as she says, has been “severely degraded by increasing pollution, over-pumping, and development.”

When Jennifer moved to the south to work as a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, and later to get her PhD at the University of Florida, the swampy, humid character of central Florida was a shock. Searching for a place where she could spend her time in the water, she found the springs. She immediately fell in love with them. “I wanted to find a way to communicate about the springs and teach others about them with photography,” she says.

Changes in Gilchrist Blue spring from 2017 to 2018. Photos represent the transition from native vegetation/flowing green grasses to algae in many spring systems. This specific loss of vegetation was likely due to hurricane Irma. Photograph by Jennifer Adler.

Aside from documenting the springs, Jennifer spends her time diving into the deep, perplexing passages of the aquifer. “Above water I’m not the most graceful person,” Jennifer says laughing. “I’m a pretty type A person.” But, when she’s in the water the weight lifts off. Especially when she’s cave diving. “You’re just present in the moment, there’s no one talking and all you can hear is bubbles,” she says.

It’s the mixture- I think as Jenny and I glide across the clear blue water at Silver Glen Spring the next day - between doing what you love and letting something as uncontrollable as nature take over all your senses. “It’s completely dark, except for your light. Pitch dark. Darker than being out at night. There are no stars, there’s no moon, there’s nothing. You feel like you’re in this other world. And the water is so clear, that it feels like you’re flying.” While some people look above them for answers, wondering what lies beyond the blanket of stars we see every night, Jenny looks below our feet, at a universe as immeasurable and fascinating as the one above.

Nature has a way of showing us what matters if we pay attention; Jenny’s job involves making it easier for us to see the signs. The aquifers are alive with winding caves and passages of clear freshwater, so to avoid getting lost, there is a main line that cave divers tie onto so they can find their way back. “There are so many different paths you could take even to get to the same place… it is a cool analogy for life. How will you get there? How long is it going to take? What are you going to find at the bottom?” she says. In a way, we’re all holding on to the main line, that thing that brings us back to the center, to the clear path. Although following the main line “can be an awesome dive,” as Jenny describes it, she says that we shouldn’t forget the side tunnels. “If you had asked me if I would be doing what I’m doing now even a couple of years ago, I would tell you absolutely not. Not because I wouldn’t want it, but because it’s hard to envision,” Jenny says. “It’s cool what can happen when you follow a path… but then, along the way you find these other amazing things and it ends up better than you thought it would.”

Panoramic view of the limestone and winding tunnels of an aquifer. Photograph by Jennifer Adler.

Most of us are constantly looking for the right way to do something, and we often look to the people that have achieved a version of our dreams for guidance. But just like in the aquifer, no path is the same; there is no right way of “getting there.” When we try to emulate others’ experiences, she tells me, we often miss adding our own touch to it. “When you see someone that is where you want to be, you shouldn’t do exactly what they did, you should to do it in your own way, and with your own touch. With your own expertise.”

Experience is a big factor in her work documenting the springs and aquifers, and it brings up deeper issues our society faces. Seemingly smaller issues that are the core of larger ones like, for example, environmental protection. She shows us how disconnected we are, not only from nature, but from the processes that dictate how we make decisions about our lives. One of those processes involves the porous foundation of our educational system; the gaps in knowledge and the need for change in the way in which children learn.

In 2016, she created an educational program called Walking on Water, which immerses elementary school students in the springs, cameras in hand, and teaches them about the aquifer via the first 360-virtual tour of the Floridian Aquifer. “Because they are so curious, if you plant that seed when they’re little, and let them have this immersive experience, then you can perhaps begin to completely change their whole water ethic: how they view it, how they value it, and how they will use it in their later life decisions,” she says. Because specific knowledge like the aquifers and springs often doesn’t make it into textbooks, programs like these are a way to fill those gaps. They are also proof that education should be universal, but not systemic. Meaning we’ve forgotten there are different ways to teach and learn. Jenny believes that it’s more about having children come to conclusions on their own. “They must change the structures and understanding in their own mind, rather than us just telling them something that they have to know.”

Children follow a female Suwannee cooter turtle while exploring Blue Spring on a Walking on Water educational trip to the springs. Photograph by Jennifer Adler.

“It’s more difficult with adults, and one of the problems, or reasons why, is that there is a huge disconnect between adults and their water.” In Florida, a lot of adults come from somewhere else. Then, “when you look at people who grew up here, their formal education never included the aquifers and springs,” she explains. But, going to the springs, exploring them, trying to understand them, does make a difference.

It’s not easy to make people listen, especially when there are so many things that can’t wait for the next generation to be fixed. But someone has to start. “If people can make the connection between the springs and the aquifer, they can also understand how their life at the surface, affects the water that’s beneath their feet.” Her willingness and enthusiasm for teaching about and inviting others to visit the springs is ultimately what makes it all so approachable. She encourages everyone to put on a mask, and experience these ecosystems with that childlike curiosity and sense of exploration that, as adults, we often forget we have.

Her background as an ecologist and marine biologist allows her to talk about these ecosystems in a more informative way, which is fundamental when you’re trying to turn a beautiful picture into something that will incite action. Like many other photographers today, she reaches her audience through different social media platforms. As I scroll through her Instagram account, I find that the thoughtful and introspective captions often say as much as the pictures they accompany. Both her images and writing bring a personal, vulnerable and open aspect to her work that makes anyone, with any level of information, feel a connection to it.

Think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In Plato’s version, one person must leave the cave to realize that what we think is real- the shadows of puppets on a wall- isn’t the full version of the truth. That person must then come back to the cave and teach others, to open their eyes to what they've been missing. In an inverse, yet equal, way, by diving beneath the surface, Jenny exposes a different reality- a more complete truth. We need her to, because out here we’re all staring at a wall of shadows, oblivious to the universe beneath our feet.

"Immersion in a murky sinkhole reveals there is beauty beneath a thick layer of duckweed." Photograph by Jennifer Adler.

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