An eye-catching photo of a pink river dolphin breaching the surface of the Amazon river has earned top prize. Kat Zhou has been named Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023 for her incredible photo of the endangered animal. The American photographer’s image came out on top of over 6000 pictures entered by photographers from 72 countries.
“There’s a legend among locals in the Amazon that river dolphins, or ‘botos’, can transform into handsome men known as ‘boto encantado’ at night to seduce women,” writes Zhou of the dolphin. “Though I did not witness this elusive boto transformation, at dusk I was enchanted by these beautiful mammals in a different way.
She adds, “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!”
Alex Mustard, competition judge commented of Zhou’s photo, “This is by far the best image we’ve ever seen of this species, whose numbers are declining at an alarming rate and whose IUCN’s Red List status was worryingly uprated to Endangered in 2019.”
“It is appropriate that the Amazon, as the world’s mightiest river, has produced our overall winner,” Mustard continued. “The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest aims to celebrate underwater photography in all its diversity and we are delighted that this year’s awarded images come from the poles to the tropics, from all corners of the ocean, and from renowned freshwater bodies like the river Amazon and Lake Baikal. Being more than a nature contest, we even have winners taken in swimming pools.”
Take a look at more of this year’s spectacular winning images below:
British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
“The whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef [Australia] are often accompanied by bait-balls like this one, where the small fish use the shark as a floating shelter. However this one was huge, much denser and with a lot more fish than usual, so I was really excited to photograph it. The shark almost looked as if it was getting fed up with the small fish and it was attempting to shake off the swarm,” writes Ollie Clarke
“It would make steep dives and then ascend again right away thrashing its tail, but the fish would just swirl even more densely around the poor shark, who would have barely been able to see through the bait-ball! I was hoping to spend a bit of time photographing this shark, but after some ups and downs, he disappeared into the depths of the Indian Ocean, an encounter I’ll never forget,” continues Clarke.
Save Our Seas Foundation Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023
A humpback whale is dying a slow, painful and agonizing death after having its tail entangled in a ropes and buoys, rendering its tail completely useless. Photographer Alvaro Herrero writes, “A reflection of what not only our oceans are suffering, but also our planet, the product of man’s selfishness and lack of responsibility.
“Taking this photograph was, for me, the saddest moment I’ve experienced in the ocean. Especially because I have spent so much time with humpbacks underwater, experiencing eye contact, interactions, and seeing with my own eyes how they are sentient and intelligent beings,” he says. “But I’m ‘happy’ to being able to capture that moment and show the world what is happening, what we are doing. I really hope this image make us aware, open our eyes and drive us in to make real changes.”
Most Promising British Underwater Photographer 2023
Sunlight beats down through a marine jungle of Himanthalia algae on the chalk reefs of the Needles Marine Conservation Zone at the Isle of Wight. “Exploring the shallower reefs on a summer evening, my mission was to capture a wide angle image that documented this stunning local habitat, combining both the towering forests above and the anemones that rule the chalk seabed below. After several unsatisfying attempts I stumbled upon this gully packed with snakelocks, and sinking into the forest beneath, found the composition I had been seeking,” writes Theo Vickers.
WINNER Wide Angle
“My dive partner and I chartered a boat to arrive at Stingray City on Grand Cayman before dawn so as to capture the morning light and undisturbed sand ripples. Just as the sun broke the horizon, a line of southern stingrays headed straight for me and I captured this image as they glided across the sand,” says Rafael Caballero.
RUNNER UP Wide Angle
“A female orca swimming through a bait ball of herring, turning it into a donut,” says Andy Schmid. “I’ve been traveling to Northern Norway for the 5 past 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.”
THIRD Wide Angle
“The most similar sensation to seeing a sky full of birds when underwater is undoubtedly be the feeling of being below a large mobula aggregation of the Sea of Cortez,” says Rafael Caballero. “This incredible show of nature occurs during spring time and offers amazing moments, such as this one. I dived down, holding my breath and waited until hundreds of rays unexpectedly passed over my head. Such moments are so amazing that you can almost forgets to go up to breathe.”
“Walking along a rocky shoreline [on Vancouver Island, Canada] we would peer under rocks using a probe lens and my camera’s LCD screen to check for plainfin midshipman nests,” writes 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 and she will lay as many eggs as his singing deserves before moving on to the next singer. Now, the male has a chance to fertilize the eggs, but only if he is not beaten to the punch by a sneaker male who looks like a female. The singer male will then guard the nest never knowing the kids may not be his. Drama!”
RUNNER UP Macro
“Life begets life. In the cold green waters of Monterey Bay, there is no organism more essential to the ecosystem than Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera.) It is shelter, sustenance, and stability for countless different species,” writes Sage Ono.
“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 ‘Relentless’ 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. Since she was so calm around us, I took this opportunity to take a few close-up shots of her eye,” says Kat Zhou.
Around Point Loma, California Brett Eldridge describes, “We were out scanning targets in June when we saw a very small, but promising sonar blip 230 feet deep. I geared up and jumped in hoping for something special. After some searching, my heart started racing when I first saw fish then the propeller of an almost completely intact, single-engine WW II airplane! It turned out to be a F8F-1 Bearcat, a rare aircraft that Neil Armstrong famously once said was his favorite and has been described as ‘An Engine With a Saddle.”
RUNNER UP Wrecks
Nicolai Posininsky says, “The picture shows the wreck of the Salam Express [in Safaga, Egypt]. It is not just a wreck, because unfortunately many people lost their lives when it went down. Because of this tragedy there is a special feeling to dive there. With this picture I tried to capture the sombre and reflective mood.”
“The wreck Mahusan is from the German dive lake Kreidesee, which was sunk to make it a diving attraction. It is laying at 50 meters depth and is dark. It is a good idea to bring as much light as you need. Kreidesee is an excellent place to train diving and camera skills, as it is just a short scooter ride out to the wrecks,” writes René B. Andersen.
“A couple of coconut octopuses ‘making love’ (mating). I knew that I can find this species of Octopus at one of dive sites near Tulamben village (Bali, Indonesia) and they are active only at night time in that place. I dive there only after 7pm hoping to photograph something unique – their mating. I’ve done more than 30 night dives at the dive site and finally I got lucky,” writes Yury Ivanov. “The photo shows the end of their love.”
RUNNER UP Behaviour
“During the Marlin Expedition in Baja California we could spot the Bryde Whales around and even saw them passing close by us few times while we were in the water. But when we have located this huge static bait ball of sardines we knew that it’s the place we want to stay for a while. Deep inside I knew that if we are lucky we could possibly see the whales feeding on sardines. I was all focused and ready. And then while watching blue marlin hunting suddenly two Bryde’s Whales came out of nowhere, racing between each other towards the bait ball. In a matter of seconds the ball was shattered to pieces and the whales were gone,” says Wojciech Dopierala. “Thanks to the luck and patience I was in the right place and time to capture the best photo I ever could imagine.”
Bryant Turffs writes, “I captured this image of a common snapping turtle in a freshwater spring [at St. John’s River Spring, USA] after a prolonged period of observation. I intended to make images of manatees on this trip, but my attention was captured by this charismatic turtle.”
Save Our Oceans (Marine Conservation)
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 6-month-old dolphin was rescued from stranding in the eastern Gulf of Thailand since the chance for an unweaned calf to survive in the wild without its mother is slim,” says Sirachai Arunrugstichai.” However, Paradorn died a month later despite the efforts keep it alive. The Irrawaddy dolphin is on the IUCN Red List, where the species just gone extinct in Laos earlier in April 2022, while the Cambodian population is less than a hundred.”
“Turtles in our oceans are under threat from marine pollution. They consume floating plastic and get entangled in fishing nets. Ghost nets are discarded or lost nets that entangle floatsam and rubbish into floating death traps. The problem in Sri Lanka is that fishermen leave the nets afloat as they are fish aggregation devices. They will rescue turtles if they come across it but since these floats can me many miles from shore, the rescue often comes too late,” says Simon Lorenz. “We were looking for whales 35 miles offshore when we came across this badly entangled Olive Ridley sea turtle. She was very calm while our guide and my guests freed the turtle from the net.”
“Marine biologist help this hammerhead shark pup to breathe before released it. Thanks to this NGO studies, Costa Rica created the first marine sanctuary for sharks (hammerhead sharks) in Golfito – Costa Rica. Golfito is one of the most important shark nurseries known in this country but it is unfortunately located in a fisherman area. Shark population has decreased in the past years due overfishing and some species like hammerheads now are facing extinction,” writes Edwar Herreño. “Golfito is a small fisherman town where fishing is not longer a profit business and people has to find other jobs. Thanks to the biologist studies and the data collected during the past decade, Costa Rica government has expanded and created new MPA (Marine protected areas) and even created transnational marine protected corridors in collaboration with other counties in this area; most recently, the migratory way between Cocos Island in Costa Rica and Galapagos in Ecuador.”
“Caribbean Nicaragua supports the largest green turtle fishery in the Western hemisphere,” writes photographer Victor Huertas. “Although indigenous Miskitu and ethnic communities have fished green turtles for centuries, research conducted by biologists…indicates that growing pressure on this iconic species is unsustainable. This prompted authorities to enact a series of regulations to improve the management of the Nicaraguan green turtle fishery. These turtles had been confiscated by the Nicaraguan National Police because they were being illegally transported to Bluefields, the region’s capital, where turtle consumption was no longer allowed. The turtles were later released back into the ocean near the Pearl Cays.”
David Serradell writes, “I took this image while on a surf trip on the east coast of Sri Lanka. A series of sharks were laying dead on the ground with marks on their mouths from hooks, most likely from longlines set miles away offshore. Looking at the fisherman standing behind his most recent catch I thought about how little money he was just going to get from that day, comparing it to how much Asian markets would get when reselling the future dried fins from these sharks. I cannot blame the fisherman, this is the only thing they have been doing for their entire life with the only goal of bringing food to the family table. It is easy to blame, difficult to listen to the whole story. Supremacy shows the power of humans to, in approx 50 years, bring sharks to the brink of extinction, a group that has survived 5 mass extinctions.”
“While we were cleaning one of the beaches on the island, my friend called ‘There’s a turtle trapped, I think it’s dead.’ Rushing over we cold see the turtle trapped in fishing nets unable to breathe. In the midst of so much pain, anger and frustration, we realised that the turtle was still breathing. We got scissors and began to cut her free,” recounts Damian Almua. “We talked to her and encouraged her not to give up and gently and lovingly cut each piece of fishing net entangled in her body. I managed to portray the moment of greatest tension and care, in the release of the turtle so that it has a second chance to live and return to its home. Although I can’t help wondering if she will remain free or if other fishing nets are waiting to catch her again.”
“Put a million Dollar price tag on a species and you almost certainly guarantee it’s decline. The base picture of this double exposure was taken before sunrise in Tokyo’s fish market. Pictured, is one of the morning’s prize fish going from auction to be sliced up and fed into Japan’s insatiable sashimi markets. Single bluefin tuna have sold there for as much as US$3m. Unsurprisingly the species is heavily overfished.”
“I saw this beautiful California sea lion one morning in La Jolla. Sadly, she had a lure hooked in her mouth,” writes photographer Celia Kujala. “California sea lions travel long distances to hunt for food and may come in contact with fishing boats while offshore. However, I have also seen people fish by the sea lion colony so it is possible she became hooked in her own home. I will never forget the terror I have seen in the eyes of sea lions that have just 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.”
“Polar bears and man exist in two different worlds. Human progress is relentless, but in the process we are melting ice and devastating the oceans. The two worlds – man and nature – continue to drift apart. And the crown of this incompatibility – we board this huge iron vessel with a capacity of 75k horsepower, with a luxury bar and pool to explore ‘the animal world’ – a place moving further and further away from us. The world as we know it is very fragile, and the current state of affairs – from political conflicts to the climate crisis – means that the end could very well be nigh. These things are real, and if they continue as they are, the outcome will be catastrophic. I’m curious – what will it take to steer this ship around? So – a home divided. Or maybe the world is divided?”
“The elephant’s trunk is one of the most distinctive anatomical features in the natural world and this photo aims to emphasize it. Luckily, he was curious about my camera and was happy to feel it out which gave me the opportunity to capture this perspective despite otherwise bad conditions for an over-under photo (choppy water and poor visibility),” says Suliman Alatiqi of the elephant he photographed in Thailand.
RUNNER UP Portrait
“For me, the leopard seal is the most special and epic predator on the planet. It can as big as 4 meters long, it has a reptilian face and the infamy of being curious and dangerous. Although, it is can be dangerous, there are incredible stories of interaction such as those of Paul Nicklen, to whom a female brought several penguins in an attempt to teach him how to hunt,” says Rafael Fernandez Caballero.
He adds, “As with any wild animal, respect and care must be maximum and with this species these really have to be on another level. Working with experts and following these principles, we finally had an amazing encounter with the big female leopard seal that played with us and was really curious.”
“We had tried to recreate the most famous scene of Marilyn underwater instead of on land. Normally in pool photography you have plenty of time.” Thomas Heckmann says. “Here, however, it came down to a fraction of a second to catch the right moment where the bubbles produced the desired effect.”
WINNER Black & White
“The image was taken on the last morning of a five-day trip to Peninsula Valdés in Argentina, in August 2022, under a special permit to enter the water with the Southern Right Whales that gather there between June and December each year,” says Don Silcock. “The mother, who can be seen in the background, accepted our presence and allowed the calf to interact with us. It was very playful but careful not to hit us with it’s tail and seemed to be really enjoying it all – almost as much as we were! White calves are very rare and referred to locally as “El Blanco” or the white one!”
RUNNER UP Black & White
“I wanted to achieve two goals with this image of a newborn blacktip reef shark. First, I aimed to recreate the iconic poster image of Jaws with a much less intimidating and more accurate portrayal of a shark. Secondly, I wanted to display the array of tiny dots with sensitive organs called ampullae of Lorenzini with which sharks can detect electric fields such as those produced by their prey,” writes Victor Huertas. “I hope that this image elicits both fascination and respect for sharks and contributes to inspire people to want to learn more about these interesting animals. ”
THIRD Black & White
“Diving in a cenote is a unique experience. A particular atmosphere reigns when the sun rays penetrate. In some of them, a cloud of sulfur in suspension gives us the impression of being in another world. The challenge of this dive was to see this famous cloud. Indeed, originally, the hydrogen sulfide layer is flat. So I asked the freediver to go back and forth on it,” write Fabrice Guerin. “The layer dispersed and formed successive layers of smoke. Not easy to render this effect but with a little imagination we could believe that we are above the clouds.”
“When I was snorkeling in Marsa Alam I saw countless Klunzinger’s Wrasses. One of them was particularly curious and very interested in my lens. I was able to take some good classic wide angle pictures,” writes Enrico Somogyi. For this picture, I moved the camera forward a bit while the shutter was released. This created the zoom effect in the lower part of the image. I was very happy with the result.”
RUNNER UP Compact
Takeshi Iioka writes, “This photo was taken in Mikurajima, Tokyo. Dolphins swim very quickly, so it is not easy to photograph them like this. On this occasion, a group of dolphins approached as if saying “welcome”. It was a lucky situation that a group of dolphins approached in such a pleasing formation. I only had time for one photo and this is the frame.”
“As a photographer who has been specializing in artistic swimming for a number of years, I was inspired by the original concept of “water ballet,” an outdated term for the current sport. I took this simple concept of an outdated term and made it quite literal in this series where I photographed local ballet dancers under water in a residential pool,” says James Rokop.
THIRD Up & Coming
Barney Smith says of his quintuple exposure, “I took this image whilst snorkelling under a jetty in Indonesia…I was delighted to find that 5 of the the images blended together so well in this surreal underwater panorama, with the film spacing even highlighting the clownfish!”
WINNER British Waters Compact
“I had been going back to this spot on Crack rock [Babbacombe, UK] to capture the variable Blenny for several weeks.,” says Tony Reed. He was caring over his eggs inside the crevice so I was trying to capture the point when the eggs were hatching. Being such an inquisitive little chap he was always moving around getting closer to the camera until he got to this point where I took a few shots.”
RUNNER UP British Waters Compact
Says James Lynott, “During autumn of 2022 I wanted to try and take splitshots with fallen leaves in the water that also captured some water movement, as well as the wonderful autumnal colours of the trees above. I had few locations in mind to try this, but one that worked out well was Glamis Den [in Scotland].”
THIRD British Waters Compact
“I had been trying for a few years to dive the Blow hole at Boscastle but bad conditions stopped play many times until late August last summer when I was on a family road trip. I arrived a couple of hours before high tide to check the spectacular blow hole doing its thing,” writes Tony Reed. “The blow hole when submerged is a 63 meter long tunnel which runs right through the headland and out the other side. This is what causes the surge through, creating the blow!”
WINNER British Waters Living Together
Dan Bolt says, “We were initially interested in this site in Loch Fyne for the fields of Firework Anemones, but of equal interest was an old pipe that had this patterned concrete protective covering along its length. This shallow artificial reef was home to many different species, including some large Langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus) who were seemingly unperturbed by my presence.”
RUNNER UP British Waters Living Together
“One of my summer morning swims with Emma,” says Lukasz Jan Kowalski. “She is a very good swimmer and amazing free diver so is always pleasure be with her underwater and capture this moments on camera. I heard from Emma about her favourite underwater destinations and on this day she was showing me one from this list [Falmouth Bay, England]. This place is magical and always full of fish and other marine animals.”
THIRD British Waters Living Together
Writes, Henley Spiers, “Farmed shellfish offer a means to create much needed marine protein without taxing the environment as heavily as wild fishing or fish aquaculture. These mussels lines do not require feeding as they nourish themselves from nutrients in the passing water. Moreover, they have the added benefit of improving water quality through filtration. Exploring the Shetland mussel lines was an excitingly novel dive, with the lines themselves proving to be surprisingly photogenic.”
WINNER British Waters Macro
“I have long admired others’ pictures of nudibranchs feeding on the egg coils of other nudibranch species across the world. I’d also seen this nudibranch species, Favorinus branchialis, before, and I knew that it fed in this way, but never seen it in action until recently,” says Kirsty Andrews. “I was therefore thrilled to find three large specimens feeding on a big coil of eggs in Shetland, Scotland.”
RUNNER UP British Waters Macro
“A sea urchin’s shell continues to serve an importance 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 and 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 on closer examination a small butterfish was observed taking refuge inside whist peering out tentatively,” writes Malcolm Nimmo.
THIRD British Waters Macro
Ryan Stalker says, “The sea was choppy to rough and there were rafts of seaweed floating just offshore in Chesil Cove. These rafts of weed can bring travellers from far away or from just down the coast and are always worth investigating. I snorkelled out to them to investigate what was there. To my surprise the rafts had many of these pipefish within it as well as other species. These two at only about 50mm long just wouldn’t leave each other alone. One of them clinging to a piece of floating bootlace weed whilst the other securely holds onto its companions neck.”
RUNNER UP British Waters Wide Angle
Malcolm Nimmo says, “The waters around the Isles of Scilly, with their abundance and diversity of marine life, offer magical snorkelling and diving experiences. In particular, the transient late Spring/Summer influx of jellyfish are a wonderful sight, including the migration of the compass jellyfish. This image was taken from the waters of Great Bay, St Martins. The compass jellyfish was gently pulsating close to surface, allowing for the inclusion in the image of a section of the sky above, but also by careful positioning the camera, a partial mirror reflection of the main body of the jellyfish.”
THIRD British Waters Wide Angle
Nicholas More writes, “Blue Sharks provide one of the UK’s finest big animal encounters. They are naturally bold, curious and characterful. Here a slow shutter speed combined with rear curtain sync and lots of flash, captures the shark swimming through the frame, whilst rendering the background with an oily, smooth texture. This created a more serene and naturalistic image than my usual, more dramatic front-curtain, accelerated panning portraits. Please support bite-back.com in their mission of Shark and marine conservation and to prevent overfishing of Shark & Ray species.”
Take a look of the winners from 2022 here.