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 en