Wonders Of Ocean Life Captured By Winners Of Underwater Photographer Of The Year Awards

Blacktip reef harks swim beneath sea gulls as the sun sets in the French Polynesiasees. The beautiful image captures a moment in time, a “glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance.”

The image was selected as the top photograph among over 4500 photographs of underwater life, its photographer named the winner of the 2021 Underwater Photographer of The Year competition.

Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 © Renee Capozzola/UPY 2021

US Photographer Renee Capozzola described how she travels to French Polynesia to photograph sharks because it’s her favorite place to photograph them. “I dedicated several evenings to photographing in the shallows at sunset, and I was finally rewarded with this scene: glass-calm water, a rich sunset, sharks and even birds.”

She explained “In French Polynesia there is strong legal protection for sharks, allowing them to thrive and balance the marine ecosystem. It took many attempts, but on this particular evening the water was calm, the sharks came into a nice composition, and I got lucky with the birds as well. Since many shark species are threatened with extinction, it is my hope that images of these beautiful animals will help promote their conservation.”

Photographer Mark Kirkland who photographed frogs in a pond near his home joined Capozzola in the winners’ circle.

British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021. © Mark Kirkland/UPY 2021

“This small muddy pond is an unlikely haven for wildlife, squeezed between a housing estate, supermarket and factory. But for a few nights each year, while the city sleeps, it comes alive with frogs,” said Scottish photographer Kirkland. “This frame was the culmination of 25 hours over 4 winter nights of lying stationary in darkness. Was it time well spent? Absolutely!” Judges agreed with one calling it “a masterpiece.”

Every year, the judges of the Underwater Photographer of The Year competition review thousands of submitted photographs of  underwater worlds. With oceans, lakes and rivers under increased danger of destruction from climate change and human interference, having a look inside the diversity and wonders of our planet’s water seems all the more urgent.

The annual competition highlights several categories from images captured in “My Backyard” to those exclusively found in “British Waters” along with photographs that spotlight  macrophotography, conservation and underwater ship wrecks. Check out the winning images below along with notes from the respective photographers:

WINNER, Category: Behaviour. © Karim Iliya/UPY 2021

A striped marlin in a high speed hunt in Mexico. “This is a terrifying scene for the small fish, fleeing for their lives as a striped marlin hunts them. The slightest mistake means life or death. There are often birds hunting from above and sometimes a dozen other marlin and sea lions attacking from all sides. Marlin are one of the fastest fish in the sea, a terrifying predator for a small fish in the great blue desert. I went to Mexico to document these feeding frenzies but was not expecting such a fast paced hunt, almost too fast for my brain to process.”

RUNNER UP Category Behaviour. © JingGong Zhang/UPY 2021

“This is a picture of blenny in a fight. It is a species of chaenopsid blenny found around Japan and South Korea. Its most distinctive feature is its very cool hairstyle, which is often referred to as Punk Blenny or Mohican Blenny. In fact, this kind of Blenny fight scene is very rare because they usually just stay in their lair and don’t interact with other individuals. But during the breeding season, if an area is too densely populated, the blenny will engage in fierce fights for a mate, and these fights are often quickly settled.”

THIRD Category Behaviour © Mike Korostelev/UPY 2021

“Milk feeding. On this day a family of 13 Sperm Whales allowed me to stay with them the whole day. It is a big honour for this human to be with whales in their habitat in the ocean. These whales probably remember whaling years ago but they forgive us. At the end of the day one mother starts to feed her calf just meters from me. I froze and didn’t move. It was incredible to see such a private moment.”

WINNER Category Portrait ©Ryohei Ito/UPY 2021

“As the Asian sheepshead wrasse grows older, it changes sex from female to male and at the same time it develops a large lump on its head. I thought about the lighting and composition so that the image of the bump and the powerful face could be conveyed, and challenged many times. He lives in a shrine under the water and looks just like a guardian deity.”

RUNNER UP Category Portrait ©Keigo Kawamura/UPY 2021

“Japanese manefish is not a fish that can be found by looking for it. It can only be encountered by diving when a perfect tide brings them close to shore.”

THIRD Category Portrait ©Michael Gallagher/UPY 2021

“I took this portrait of a gorgeous French Angelfish whilst scuba diving at the legendary Salt Pier in Bonaire in the Caribbean. Luckily for me, two key elements combined together so that I could snap this intimate portrait of one of my favourite fish – firstly, my subject was somewhat familiar with divers already and not afraid to face the camera, and secondly, I was able to exploit the shadows under the pier itself to create a dark background which helped highlight the exceptional beauty of this particular fish.”

Winner Categories: My Backyard /British Waters Wide Angle ©Mark Kirkland/UPY 2021

“Malls Mire – small woodland in Glasgow, between a housing estate, supermarket and factory – is an unlikely haven for wildlife. As winter thaws, for a few nights each year one of its small muddy ponds comes alive with Common Frogs. ”

RUNNER UP British Waters Wide Angle ©Mark Kirkland/UPY 2021

“It’s the microscopic plankton which draws the massive Basking Shark up the west coast of Britain and into the narrow channel between the Isles of Coll and Tiree. While their migration is predictable, to share the water with them still requires that element of luck and to spend a late summer evening with them (in 2020 of all years) was a dream.”

THIRD British Waters Wide Angle ©Kirsty Andrews/UPY 2021

“Grey seals are wonderful to photograph but I particularly like this shot because of the background. My buddy showed me this pretty gully full of dead man’s fingers and light coming down through kelp. I waited there for a little while, hoping a seal would turn up. In the end I only had one quick pass from one shy seal, but I was able to take this pleasing portrait.”

WINNER Category Macro © Galice Hoarau/UPY 2021

“Pontohi pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi) is one of the smallest and most recently discovered seahorses. They usually live on reef walls and can be hard to find. We had found two during the morning dive so I decided to dedicate the afternoon to getting a backlit photo.”

RUNNER UP Category Macro © Steven Kovacs/UPY 2021

“Drifting near the surface at night in over 700 feet of water, I came across this one inch larval Lionfish off the coast of Florida during a blackwater dive. In the Atlantic Ocean, Lionfish are an invasive species and, unfortunately, finding the pelagic larvae is an all too common occurrence during these dives. This individual was exhibiting more beautiful coloration than usual and so I set out to try and capture its fins in full display.”

THIRD Category Macro © Chien-ting Hou/UPY 2021

“When I dived at night and saw this jellyfish it looked very cute. It looked like an alien creature had appeared in front of me. It has a lot of tentacles so sometimes looks very messy. But I really wanted to take a picture of his tentacles that are vertical, so I waited for a while and finally took the picture, but when I replayed the picture, I found two bugs on it’s body. They were like taking a spaceship to go traveling in space.”

RUNNER UP Category My Backyard © Steve Miller/UPY 2021

“Fisheye lenses with circular frames have always fascinated me, and when Olympus made a small one for the TG-6, I was anxious to test it. This image was actually part of the research and development of a dome port constructed to make shooting over/unders easier. I floated in a belly boat that anglers use so that I could sight over the housing to see where the water line was. The Golden Retriever- Butters, is always happy to photo bomb any image in the pool.”

Third Category My Backyard © Shane Gross/UPY 2021

Pink salmon make their way up river to spawn. “I had an abstract “fill the frame with fish faces” image in mind. I sat in one spot in the chilly, flowing river waiting for the fish to change their opinion of me from bear to rock. It actually didn’t take that long.”

WINNER Category Wrecks © Tobias Friedrich/UPY 2021

“Due to bad weather at Tiger Beach and in Bimini we had to look for shelter near Nassau in the Bahamas and do some regular dives. This wreck [the Bowlander] was totally new to me and a big surprise when we descended as the bow is hanging almost completely over a sandy overhang.”

RUNNER UP Category Wrecks © Grant Thomas/UPY 2021

“It was late in the day and the sun was setting over the arid landscape of Jordan’s southern most city, Aqaba. Myself and a group of underwater photographers were all waiting eagerly for night time to come so that we could enter the water and begin to explore the huge array of military hardware which has been purposely sunk for divers to enjoy.”

THIRD Category Wrecks © Renee Capozzola/UPY 2021

“This split shot of the Georgios shipwreck was taken in Neom, Saudi Arabia along the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. In 1978, this large cargo ship originally from England became stranded on a shallow coral reef at night and then suffered from a large fire. Now serving as an artificial reef for many marine organisms, this wreck sits halfway out of the water on the bow side and in roughly 80 feet of water on the stern side. Some locals refer to this site as the ‘Saudi Titanic.'”

WINNER Category Compact © Jack Berthomier/UPY 2021

“I used to go fishing in the river to take some shots a few days after big rains which make the riverbed go higher and make some big floods. The current is strong but still practicable for freediving with dislodged plants, leaves and branches. They bring a lot of colors which showcase this plain New caledonian carp which are common in our rivers.”

RUNNER UP Category Compact © ManBd/UPY 2021

“When I was underwater with this Hairy Panda Goby, he was very shy so it took a long time for it to be comfortable before it popped its head out. While waiting, I set up my coloured torches and align them to illuminate the coral, but not the goby. Then to produce a sharp picture of the goby I had to use another snoot with white light, so that it is recorded correctly and surrounded by all the colours.”

THIRD Category Compact ©Isaías Cruz/UPY 2021

“This image was taken in summer, offshore from Bermeo, while doing a shark dive. Being surrounded by 3 blue sharks, this pelagic ray appeared to check the bait. It was a very rare encounter, this animal was not been sighted before in this waters, and I too had never seen this animal before. It was going in and out from the bait, so I tried to get close to it calmly, then it come right to my dome and I took the photo.”

WINNER Category Black & White © Diana Fernie /UPY 2021

“This photograph was taken at Leru Cut in the Solomon Islands. I was lucky enough to have won a 10-day trip on the Solomons PNG Master liveaboard and was very excited to have the opportunity to visit this site again. Having dived these waters on two previous occasions I knew what to expect. However, I needed an elegant model as an essential element for this composition and my immediate companions could not be classified in any way as elegant! Fortunately, there was another photographer in my dingy group whose beautiful model wife was the perfect subject. Somewhat cheekily I managed to capture a few shots of her as she posed for her husband!”

RUNNER UP Category Black & White © Martin Broen/UPY 2021

“Imagine yourself in an underwater cave in Mexico, hours away from the exit to surface, diving through a never ending labyrinth covered with prehistoric formations, seeing charcoal in the ground from the fires of an ancient culture, finding bones of animal species extinct 8000 years ago, and everything around you is preserved as it was back in the time those caves flooded. It’s a visceral feeling of going back in time to a different age. This image is trying to capture that.”

THIRD Category Black & White © Renata Romeo/UPY 2021

“During the long months of the pandemic I had to revise, like everyone else, my usual way of life and had to replace the usual diving with snorkeling and this activity surprisingly gave me new time and space, interesting perspectives and different points of view. It gave birth to my life in a time of shadows.”

“This summer, snorkeling very early in the morning in Marsa Egla, I often met the smaller and friendly hawksbill turtle of the bay. Enchanted by its elegant movements, I watched it for hours eating and breathing. I noticed that particular conditions of light and sea made perfect the reflection of its being on the surface. For days I have been waiting patiently for that favorable situation and that its figure could be captured in a photo as I imagined it: a perfect moment of freeze its geometries in the light reflected on the surface.”

Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021. Most Promising British Underwater Photographer 2021. © SJ Alice Bennett/UPY 2021

“As this shot was taken during cave training [Cenote Mayan Blue, Sistema Ox Bel Ha, Tulum], we had a pretty intricate plan in place, which is not usually how I run caves shoots. However, the plan failed miserably as the cave student, Max, had multiple equipment failures before even making it past the cavern zone. Plans are important, but when they fail you need to adapt quickly and deal with a new situation.”

“After fixing all the issues on the surface and changing our plan to accommodate our now fairly depleted gas supplies, we descended again. I swam ahead and waited just beyond the beginning of the permanent mainline watching the team swim towards me, followed closely by the lighting assistants creating those beautiful halo effects. Suddenly everything just lined up perfectly, so I pressed the shutter just as Max turned to tie into the mainline. ”

RUNNER UP Category Up & Coming © Ryohei Ito/UPY 2021

“As we were mooring the safari boat in the lagoon at night, Manta rays came behind the boat to eat the plankton that gathered in the light of the boat so I put on my snorkel and fins and went into the sea with my camera. This Manta ray, which preys on plankton, repeatedly flipped in front of me and went deep into the water. The appearance of the giant dancing in front of me was a masterpiece. Watching the situation up close, I was absorbed in releasing the shutter. This photo was taken aiming at Mantaray rising from the depths toward the light on the surface of the water.”

THIRD Category Up & Coming ©Danny Lee – Submerged Images Tasmania/UPY 2021

“Whenever I see an Albatross I get excited! Their sheer size and beautiful features make them a joy to photograph. I have been working on a series of split shots of the various species of Albatross that visit Tasmanian waters for a few years now. Getting good eye contact as well as good feet symmetry is a challenge as they are generally quite shy Birds. I use a very simple inexpensive compact camera and do not use a wide angle dome or wet lens when taking these photos. ”

WINNER British Waters Macro © Malcolm Nimmo/UPY 2021

“The variable blenny (Parablennius pilicornis) is a relatively new arrival to UK coastal waters, with its origins from more southerly waters (it has been recorded throughout the Mediterranean Sea). This species may appear in a number of different colour forms. This particular blenny was standing out proud on a reef ledge, making it an ideal subject.”

RUNNER UP British Waters Macro ©Dr Alex Tattersall/UPY 2021

Stalkie on Bootlace weed. “A beautiful summer morning in mid-July, we left the beach and swam though beautiful clumps of bootlace weed in the high tide. Looking closer, we could see snails, shells, anemones and stalked jellyfish making their temporary homes among the weeks. Very peaceful moments.”

THIRD British Waters Macro ©Dan Bolt/UPY 2021

“The corkwing wrasse you can see in the background was actually busy building a nest under the pier. This means he was very distracted by his duties and would regularly come back to the same spot to add more gathered pieces of seaweed. The nudibranch had been making its way along a near-by piece of kelp, and I only had to wait for a minute or two before it made its way up a seaweed stump enabling me to grab a few shots just at the moment when wrasse and nudibranch were both in frame.”

WINNER British Waters Living Together © Kirsty Andrews/UPY 2021

“The UK, in my view, has some of the finest wreck diving in the world, and the SS Hispania in the Sound of Mull is one of my favourites. This wreck truly has become an artificial reef: the wreck attracts the wildlife and both wreck and wildlife attract the divers. Every inch of metal is covered in anemones, seaweeds or sponges, orange and white.”

RUNNER UP British Waters Living Together © Atanas Petrov/UPY 2021

“During a dive on the SS Rosalie, a wreck off the coast of Weybourne in England, I noticed these two brown crabs (Cancer pagurus) occupying a groove in one of the supporting elements of the propeller shaft. They have probably completed an important part of their life cycle – the mating, and the male on the top was protecting the female underneath until her exoskeleton hardens. I was pleased to witness and capture this special behaviour using my wide-angle lens, which allowed me to include part of the surrounding environment as well.”

THIRD British Waters Living Together © Dan Bolt/UPY 2021

“Anchored in a sheltered inlet on Loch Carron, western Scotland, this floating pontoon is used by local fishermen to stow their gear when not being used. It’s been there for some years and is now a floating island of life.”

Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2021 © Karim Iliya/UPY 2021

“A tightly inhabited village off the coast of Panama in Guna Yala region serves as a microcosm reminder of how humans across the planet are consuming land and space at a rapid rate. Most of the Guna people live on these densely populated islands, catching fish and farming coconuts on nearby islands. The importance of human’s relationship with nature and the need to protect it is becomes very apparent when you look at our species from a bird’s eye perspective and see how much space we take up.”

RUNNER UP Marine Conservation ©Pasquale Vassallo/UPY 2021

“During one of my trips to the sea, I noticed a strong presence of these yellow nets closed like “candy”. I could not understand their purpose. In the following days, with the help of some local fishermen, I discovered that the candy is the heart of a trap. It is filled with dead fish and inserted into another net. Thanks to the smell of the remains of dead fish, it attracts some small molluscs – to be precise Nassarius mutabilis – that once they enter the trap they are unable to get out. Once the contents of the trap have been recovered, the candy is often abandoned in the sea, causing plastic pollution and, as visible in the shot, a trap for other organisms.”

THIRD Marine Conservation © Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2021

“Seeing a dead animal is always sad. But seeing a big mammal dead like this sperm whale, it is something indescribable. From land the image was terrifying. But when I flew the drone the situation was even more shocking and dramatic. There was an incredibly large river of blood, maybe longer than a mile, coming out of the sperm whale.”

WINNER British Waters Compact © Ian Wade/UPY 2021

“I had been watching a couple of Mute Swans at my local lake. They seemed to be following people around looking for food. I decided to attach a small weight to the back of my GoPro and threw it into the lake a short distance from me. The small weight would mean the GoPro always fell on its back, so I could shoot at an almost vertical angle. I have connected the GoPro to my Phone so I could remotely fire off images. The GoPro hitting the water had attached the swan’s interest and they swam over. I waited until one of the swans was in the correct position and with its head underwater and shot a high-speed burst of images enabling me to capture this picture.”

RUNNER UP British Waters Compact © Sandra Stalker/UPY 2021

“Within my underwater photography I am always excited by the tiny and overlooked, mostly focusing on macro and getting as close as I can to my subject. On this day last Summer the conditions were perfect, calm sea, clear viz and fantastic underwater scenery meant it was like diving through a spectacular underwater meadow. There were so many tiny Stalked Jellyfish clinging to the bootlace weed. The ambient light was stunning, sunshine beaming through the long strands of bootlace.”

THIRD British Waters Compact © Sandra Stalker/UPY 2021

“I absolutely adore these little Gobies and their grumpy faces. I often watch them when I dive as they have such an inquisitive nature and often challenge me to a staring contest in which they win. They tend to blend in with their background on the sand and I wanted to make the Goby stand out so for this shot I lit it with both a coloured filter behind and a snooted strobe in front to bring out the face and draw attention to an overlooked little fish. I was excited by the contrast of the vibrant pink to the glumness of the face.”

To find out more about the Underwater Photographer of the Year contest visit their website. You can also download their free Yearbook.

Disclosure: This post may include affiliate links.