Slogging through chest-deep water in an Everglades slough isn’t the stuff of viral social media posts for most teens. But for Luca Martinez, an 18-year-old self-taught photographer from Miami, the images and videos of his excursions into Florida’s famed River of Grass are exactly what’s drawing eyeballs—to the tune of millions of likes and views on TikTok and Instagram—and now an even bigger audience in the form of partnerships with Nikon and National Geographic, a film documentary in the works with Oscar-nominated producer Phil Fairclough, and other exciting projects still under wraps and on the horizon.
But Martinez hasn’t let the attention go to his head. For him, the real star is the Glades itself. In a mature move, he’s turned the accolades he’s receiving as a wildlife photographer into a platform for conservation, eschewing individual fame in an effort to inspire young people to care about a place that’s often overlooked, misunderstood, and feared.
Looking at it now, Martinez’s success seems like pure chance—a stroke of good algorithmic luck. But the way he sees it, it was all “meant to be.” He says that from an early age, his favorite pastime was going out into nature. With a GoPro camera in tow, he often went reef diving in Key Largo with his grandfather. He recalls the day, at 7 years old, that inspiration struck as he watched an osprey dive to catch a fish just a few yards away. Martinez says he felt a deep urge to share what he’d seen. “I got my first real camera soon after that experience,” he says.
Martinez’s love of photographing ospreys in his family’s Miami neighborhood and local parks further piqued his curiosity. He wanted to know more about where these birds came from, and his online research kept leading him back to the Everglades. Amid the pandemic—when the world was on lockdown and Palmer Trinity High School (where Martinez was a sophomore) was closed—he grabbed his camera, bummed a ride from his dad, and followed his research west to Shark Valley, two natural estuaries at the heart of Everglades National Park, to see what he could find.
“It was there on a foggy morning that I fell in love with a place,” Martinez recalls. Like many folks, he had envisioned the Everglades “as just a swamp.” But, he says, what he found was “so far different than the uninspired version I had in my mind. I knew from that point on I’d be spending a lot of time out there. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Martinez began to get to know the Everglades—and himself as a photographer—on dry land. “I was going on boardwalks and trails for a year or more,” he recalls. But soon he wanted to see more of what the landscape had to offer, and he knew that meant getting wet. “I started discovering the off-trails and the cypress domes. And what kept me going back was that crystal clear water and those aquatic plants.” Intrigued, Martinez saved up enough money to buy an underwater housing for his camera that would allow him to photograph what lies beneath the surface.
His social media posts of his dry-land Everglades shoots had garnered a decent following. There was video he’d shot of a barred owl in 2021 that racked up 5 million views. But the footage Martinez captured his first time out with his newly waterproofed equipment was next-level, and he knew it. The scene he saw beneath the water’s surface blew him away—and the internet agreed. “People couldn’t believe that was the Everglades underwater,” he recalls. “I totally got it. I was just as stunned as my viewers. I had never seen this world anywhere, this underwater Everglades world,” he says of the video he titled Come Dive with Me in the Florida Everglades that clocked in at 12 million views. “People were freaking out,” he says, laughing.
Martinez calls the impact of that social media blow-up “affirming and motivating.” “I started posting my images and videos on TikTok and Instagram not to say, ‘Oh look at what I did,’ but because I wanted to target my age group,” he explains. “I began to realize the future—not only of the Everglades but of all the world’s wild places—is directly tied to the youth’s connection to it. And the fastest way I can connect young people to this place is by posting videos and hopefully them going viral.”
When you think of a swamp, you may think “dangerous” or “dirty.” But Martinez wants you to think differently. His images and videos show a new view of the Everglades in a way that he hopes will change the narrative. “The truth is that when you go out into the national park and you look in the culverts and you’re in the cypress domes, the water is crystal clear,” he says. “Remember that it’s a river. It flows. It moves.”
Even still, he acknowledges, there are dangers associated with this place. Martinez is careful to take a buddy with him on his excursions, especially when he’s shooting in the water or hiking off-trail. “You can really get lost out there,” he says. Add to that the risks of injury in a place so remote. “Ankles are super susceptible to fracturing and twisting,” he says of the concerns that are top of mind for him.
Most people would start that list with fears of the Everglades’ famous toothy predators. But for Martinez, they’re not much of a worry. “When you’re out in the remote wetlands, an alligator’s natural instinct is really to stay as far away from you as it can,” he says. “You can hike for hours and not see a big animal.” Still, he takes precautions. “I do make noise if I’m out in a remote slough so that they know I’m there.”
For Martinez, the impact his images are making on his viewers greatly outweighs the risks he takes to capture and share them.
“Developments take 100,000 acres of wild Florida annually, but that’s not the biggest threat to places like the Everglades,” he explains. “The biggest threat is the fact that so many of us are dangerously disconnected from our wild places.”
Martinez admits it’s a disconnection he once felt personally. “I went from one year to the next hating Florida, wanting to leave it, not caring about the future of it, to completely falling in love and knowing I couldn’t leave until I left my mark on the story. I know that same transformation could happen with every single person here.”
He hopes that the mark he’s leaving behind the lens will create connection. “All it takes is connection, because you’ll fight for something you love,” he says. “At least one person who sees one of my videos could find that connection with this place they live so close to.”
Miami’s moniker as the Magic City isn’t lost on Martinez. “The real magic of this city lies in the bond between our incredible coastal metropolis and our resilient River of Grass,” he says. “It’s so unique. That’s the connection I’m hoping to spark. That’s the bond I’m hoping to save.”