Mac Stone grew up exploring the springs, swamps, and hammocks of North Central Florida where he developed a passion for photography at a young age. His work focuses on swamps and wetlands around the world in an attempt to change public opinion towards these valuable ecosystems. For centuries, people have viewed swamps and wetlands as obstacles to avoid, and through his stunning photographs, Mac is shining a new light on the neglected, ancient and important wildernesses. The swamp will change you, he says, as it did him.
It was 15 years ago when Mac’s love for mangroves really started. It was during his first job out of college working on watersheds and after graduating, Mac went to Honduras and lived in a mountain community along the Cangrejal River. He started and worked on a program that would teach kids photography, as a way to get them thinking about how to protect their own backyards. As with all watersheds, what happened in the mountains eventually affected the coastal communities, so he helped set up an exchange program between the two so the children could see first hand how their environmental choices were connected.
The Cangrejal River flows into the Caribbean, where the island communities of Cayos Cochinos are located. The Garifuna people who inhabit the islands are descendants of West African slaves and they primarily rely on the ocean and the health of their reefs for sustenance. By creating a cultural, environmental and photographic exchange between students in the mountains and on the islands, Mac hoped to create a meaningful understanding of how watersheds work.
Mac explained. "None of them had TV’s or any form of technology, and had never held a camera before. Hearing stories and seeing the photos the kids took is where my love for mangroves started. Several of my former students placed in international photography contests and others created an eco tourism company, no longer performing slash and burn agriculture on their land.”
But it was Mac’s backyard, the Everglades, the largest protected contiguous stand of mangroves in the western hemisphere, that blew him away at a young age and keeps him interested.
“It looks like miles and miles of monoculture, as there’s only 3 kinds of mangrove species that can survive here, but it’s when you start getting into them and looking a little harder, that you realise the complexity, and how critical they are to the whole system."
And it was during Mac’s time working as a biologist with Audubon where he became so familiar with the bay in a very intimate way. He would get up at 4am and boat for hours around certain islands peppered about in Florida Bay. And around the constantly changing and dynamic landscape, he would pick out his favourite mangrove trees to photograph. He explained,
Mac would visit the islands in the bay, which he describes as being like a mini Galapagos, and count bird nests. The area is crucial for birdlife, a key area for migrating and resident birds, while you would see hundreds of thousands of birds nesting in the treetops, as well as on the ground with a lack of mammalian predators. And it’s here that one of the most iconic species of the Everglades would nest, the Roseate Spoonbill. Their health is correlated with the health of the overall system, and sadly the Everglades has been compromised by antiquated water management schemes. Conservation organizations have been working for decades to bring more freshwater back to Florida Bay and restore the historic flow of the watershed.
But there is reason to be optimistic even as the Everglades suffers from a deficiency in freshwater. People have often hypothesized about what it looks like to get more freshwater back into the south Everglades - the seagrass and mangroves would certainly benefit. And it was when Hurricane Irma hit the Central Everglades in 2017 where it gave a glimpse of what that recovery may look like. The hurricane dumped so much water into the wetlands, which allowed fish to reproduce and disperse, and when the dry season arrived, the fish became concentrated in shrinking pools. Roseate Spoonbills, wood storks, egrets and ibis returned to the area in huge numbers and showed what the area would be like with freshwater again.
It’s amazing how quickly nature can bounce back if given the chance. And this is what gives Mac hope as he works on the Everglades restoration efforts to drive freshwater back to the southern parts of Florida Bay.
And as a judge in this year’s Mangrove Photography Awards, he challenges you all to push yourself and go to the next level - to keep capturing those incredible images and stories that happen in mangrove ecosystems. He says,