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Dive into the amazing universe of the planet’s aquatic creatures with the winning images from the Underwater Photographer of the Year (UPY) 2023, which attracted a record number of entrants and photos.
The UPY awards is a platform for astonishing photography captured beneath the surface of oceans, lakes and rivers from around the world. This year’s winners were chosen from more than 6,000 pictures entered by photographers from 72 countries.
The collection is a great reminder that even as underwater photography is a specialist discipline, it offers huge diversity. “The winning photographers and their images come from around the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many ocean places in between,” said UPY jury chairperson Alex Mustard.
American photographer Kat Zhou earned the title of Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023 with the image of ‘Boto Encantado’, a playful pink river dolphin in the world’s greatest river, the Amazon.
“In dark, tannic waters, Zhou has created a striking composition capturing this rarely photographed and endangered species,” the judges declared. “This is by far the best image we’ve ever seen of this species, whose numbers are declining at an alarming rate.”
The full set of UPY 2023 results can be seen in the Winners’ gallery
According to the legend among locals, river dolphins (botos) can transform at night into handsome men known as “boto encantado” to seduce women. “Though I did not witness this elusive boto transformation at dusk, I was enchanted by these beautiful mammals in a different way,” said Zhou.
“After seeing how botos would sometimes bring their beaks above water, I knew I want a split shot at sunset. Though the water was so dark that I was shooting blind, this dolphin gave me a perfect pose and smile.”
As indigenous communities settled by rivers in the Amazon, river dolphins began living in closer proximity to human populations, even making use of food scraps. Frequent dolphin sightings led to tales like boto encantado. But there’s a darker side to the legend, as it has often been used to excuse pregnancies after women were assaulted or forced into prostitution.
While botos are generally revered as mythical creatures, many scorned husbands have killed dolphins because of these stories. Furthermore, many river dolphins are killed for use as fish bait. Despite being banned legally, the practice has not been eradicated.
“Alongside other even bigger dangers like mercury poisoning from the gold mining industry and large development projects that have disrupted the river ecosystems, I fear that botos are in the way to truly become no more than mythical creatures,” Zhou said.
“We arrived at Stingray City on Grand Cayman before dawn so as to capture the morning light and undisturbed sand ripples,” said J. Gregory Sherman. “Just as the sun broke in the horizon, a line of southern stingrays headed straight for me and I captured this image as they glided across the sand.”
A female orca swimming through a bait ball of herring, turning it into a donut.
“I’ve been traveling to Northern Norway for the past five winters to witness one of our planet’s most spectacular wildlife events, the herring migration into the fjords which attracts large number of orcas and humpback whales,” said Andy Schmid.
Orcas are the ocean’s apex predator, feeding on everything from sharks to whales. In Arctic Norway, they target bait-balls of nutritious, egg-filled herring. The action is ephemeral and fast moving, the conditions some of the toughest for a photographer.
“The most similar sensation to seeing a sky full of birds when underwater is undoubtedly the feeling of being below a large mobula aggregation of stingrays,” the photographer said.
This incredible show of nature in the Sea of Cortez occurs during spring time. “I dived down, holding my breath and waited until hundreds of rays unexpectedly passed over my head.”
Garibaldi are protected from fishing due to their status as California’s official state Marine Fish.
Under the right conditions, they’re quite interactive with divers. “For this image, I was diving in a shallow, sunlit kelp forest with near perfect conditions when this young adult took interest with its own reflection in the dome port of my camera,”said Douglas Klug. ‘The fish spent nearly half an hour making close passes and hovering in front of my dome port as the ocean’s energy moved the kelp around, creating a light show with the shifting beams of sunlight from above.”
Garibaldis, overgrown and glowing orange damselfish, are iconic residents of kelp forests.
A warm current known as the Kuroshio around Japan changed its course a few years ago and has been sending huge schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks to Mikomoto Island.
“It is now part of my yearly routine to go there and meet my friends old and new,” Masayuki Agawa explained. “The perturbation of the Kuroshio is now at a record duration, and nobody knows when it will end. It is not a positive change for everyone, but I cannot help hoping it lasts for much longer.”
A shoal of embryonic fish still attached both to the seabed and their egg sacs reveals another incredible insight into life in the sea.
“Walking along a rocky shoreline we would peer under rocks using a probe lens and my camera’s LCD screen to check for plainfin midshipman nests,” said Shane Gross. “Once found, I would lay on top of the barnacle-covered rocks, cutting my elbows, trying to compose images of fish most people have never heard of despite having one of the most interesting lifecycles of any animal.”
Plainfin midshipman are deep-water fish that travel to the intertidal zone to spawn. The males sing to attract females that will lay as many eggs as his singing deserves before moving on to the next singer. Each male has a chance to fertilize the eggs, but only if he’s not beaten to the punch by a sneaky male that resembles a female. The singer male will then guard the nest never knowing that the kids may not be his.
This photo depicts a close-up look at the eye of a nurse shark, taken on a night dive off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas.
“Though this night dive was completely unbaited, one particular nurse shark, named ‘Relentles’ for her unwavering presence on dives in the area, followed us around on the entire time, perching herself on the sand next to us every time we stopped and swimming after us when we moved,” said Kat Zhou. “Since she was so calm around us, I was able to take a few close-up shots of her eye.”
A tiny golden damselfish glistens against the beautiful background of red sea whips creating a beautiful frame celebrating this expansive coral that provides a home to juvenile golden damsels.
The strong currents of the Maldives momentarily raised the giant carpet anemone away from the reef, to which it was attached, to exposed the most beautiful and delicate spotted porcelain crab on its underside.
As new ocean water flowed into the space, the crab would raise its feathery arms like structures located right below the head to filter planktonic algae and crustaceans out of the water.
A couple of coconut octopuses mating. “I knew that I can find this species of octopus at one of the dive sites near Tulamben village in Bali, Indonesia, and that they are active only at night time in that place.
“After more than 30 night dives I finally got lucky,” said Yury Ivanov. ‘The photo shows the end of their mating.”
A common snapping turtle feeds in a freshwater spring.
“I intended to make images of manatees, but my attention was captured by this charismatic turtle who seemed comfortable with my presence and went about her business foraging,” recalled Bryant Turffs.
These turtles will consume vegetation, live prey and also serve as scavengers in aquatic ecosystems. In this image, the turtle is consuming a scavenged flatfish, commonly known as hog-choker. The fish species got its name from farmers who observed pigs choking on their spines — but not the turtle.
This image of feeding mackerel was taken at Marsa Nakari, Red Sea, in late November.
“The optimum time to take this sort of picture in my experience is about 9am, when the fish seem to be feeding and corralling tighter,” explained Paul Pettitt.
In Motion And Compact
“When I was snorkeling in Marsa Alam, I saw countless Klunzinger’s Wrasses,” said Enrico Somogyi. “One of them was particularly curious and very interested in my lens.”
This stunning photo of a lionfish swimming peacefully while searching for food above the corals was taken just before sunset on Christmas Day in the lagoon of Reunion Island.
British Waters Wide and Macro Angles
Sunlight beats down through a marine jungle of Himanthalia algae and the purple-tipped tentacles of snakelocks anemones rising up from the forest floor on the chalk reefs of England’s Needles Marine Conservation Zone.
Striking rock formations, the Needles on the Isle of Wight, attract close to 500,000 visitors annually. Yet, like many of Britain’s marine habitats, the beauty and biodiversity of the island’s chalk reefs that lie below, from nudibranchs and rays to cuttlefish and cuckoo wrasse, are largely unknown to most.
“The hidden world of our familiar chalk streams is fascinating,” said Jenny Stock. “This picture was taken on my first day of shooting grayling and my patience paid off when these characterful swans joined the party.”
Nudibranchs feeding on the egg coils of other nudibranch species. These three large specimens are feeding on a big coil of eggs in Shetland, Scotland.
A sea urchin’s shell continues to serve an important ecological service even after the original occupying urchin has long gone. The inside of the shell provides a surface on which small fish species (such as gobies) may spawn as the inner space of the shell may act as a sanctuary or refuge against potential predators.
The urchin shell in this image was found in the upper reaches of Loch Duich, Scotland, and the small butterfish taking refuge inside came to peer out tentatively.
A humpback whale dies a slow, painful and agonizing death after having its tail entangled in a ropes and buoys, rendering it completely useless.
“Taking this photograph was, for me, the saddest moment I’ve experienced in the ocean, particularly because I have spent so much time interacting with humpbacks underwater and realizing that they are sentient and intelligent creatures,” said Alvaro Herrera. “But I’m glad I was able to capture that moment and show the world what is happening and drive us to make real changes.”
Celia Kujala took this heartbreaking image of a beautiful California sea lion in La Jolla that had a lure hooked in her mouth.
“California sea lions travel long distances to hunt for food and may come in contact with fishing boats while offshore,” she explained. “However, I have also seen people fishing by the sea lion colony so it is possible that she became hooked in her own home. I will never forget the terror in the eyes of sea lions that have had a hook get embedded on a flipper or other part of their body. Unfortunately, this sea lion went into the water before the rescue team was able to help her.”
Save Our Seas
An emotional picture shows these magnificent ocean animals dead and bloodied, and the complexity of social factors behind most conservation issues.
“I took this image while on a surf trip on the east coast of Sri Lanka,” said David Serradell. “A series of sharks laying dead on the ground with marks on their mouths from hooks, most likely from longlines set miles away offshore.”
The fisherman in the doorway will get little money from his most recent catch compared with how much the reselling of the dried fins from these sharks will attract in Asian markets.
“I cannot blame the fishermen,” Serradell explained. “This is the only thing they have been doing for their entire lives, with the only goal of bringing food to the family table. But in approximately 50 years, humans have brought sharks to the brink of extinction, a group that has survived five mass extinctions.”
Paradorn, an orphaned Irrawaddy dolphin calf, nibbles on a baby bottle while resting in the arms of its caretaker at the rehabilitation facility of Marine Endangered Species Veterinary Hospital, Rayong, Thailand.
The six-month-old dolphin was rescued from stranding in the eastern Gulf of Thailand on July 22, 2022, and then taken into care by the veterinarians of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. The chances for an unweaned calf to survive in the wild without its mother are slim at best.
Sadly, Paradorn died a month later despite the efforts to keep it alive. The Irrawaddy dolphin specie is threatened throughout its distribution range in coastal, estuarine, and riverine habitats of Southeast Asia and is also listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The species had just gone extinct in Laos earlier in April, 2022, while the Cambodian population numbers fewer than 100.