Winners of Underwater Photographer of the Year Evoke Life In The Seas with Spectacular Images

An emotive photograph showing a freediver examining the aftermath of whaling taken by Alex Dawson from Sweden has taken top prize in the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 awards. Dawson’s photograph ‘Whale Bones’ won over 6500 underwater pictures entered by underwater photographers from around the world.

“Whale Bones was photographed in the toughest conditions,” explains chair of judging panel Alex Mustard, “as a breath-hold diver descends below the Greenland ice sheet to bear witness to the carcasses. The composition invites us to consider our impact on the great creatures of this planet. Since the rise of humans, wild animals have declined by 85%. Today, just 4% of mammals are wildlife, the remaining 96% are humans and our livestock. Our way needs to change to find a balance with nature.”

The image isn’t the only winning photo of a whale. Spanish photographer Rafael Fernandez Caballero has won two of the competition’s categories with his revealing photos of these ocean giants: a close up of a grey whale’s eye taken in Magdalena Bay, Baja California, Mexico.

Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2024

Fernandez Caballero took ‘Grey Whale Connection’ while drifting in a small boat, holding his camera over the side in the water to photograph the curious whale.

‘The End Of A Baitball’ required Fernandez Caballero to dive down and be in exactly the right place at the moment the whale lunged. “The photo shows the high speed attack,” he said, “with the whale engulfing hundreds of kilograms of sardines in one bite — simply unforgettable to see predation on such a scale.”

Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2024

Lisa Stengel from the United States was named Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image of a mahi-mahi catching a sardine, in Mexico.

Lisa Stengel/UPY 2024

Stengel used both a very fast shutter speed and her hearing to catch the moment. “If you listen there’s an enormous amount of sound in the ocean,” she explained. “The action was too fast to see, so I honed in on the sound of the attacks with my camera to capture this special moment.”

“It is such an exciting time in underwater photography because photographers are capturing such amazing new images, by visiting new locations and using the latest cameras,” commented judge Alex Mustard. “Until this year I’d hardly ever see a photo of a mahi mahi, now Lisa has photographed one hunting, action that plays out in the blink of an eye.”

Jenny Stock, was named as British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image “Star Attraction.”

Star Attraction. Jenny Stock/UPY 2024

Exploring the west coast of Scotland, Stock explained “in the dark green depths my torch picked out the vivid colours of a living carpet of thousands of brittle stars, each with a different pattern. I was happily snapping away, when I spotted this purple sea urchin and I got really excited.”

Take a look at the other winning images below:

Compact Category

Nudi on Fire. Enrico Somogyi/UPY 2024

“This picture of a nudibranch (Hypsolodoris apolegma) with a emperor shrimp on the head was taken in Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia. To create the fire-like background I built a special tool which took me a long time to get it to work,” says Enrico Somogyi. “But in the end I got the picture I was looking for.”

Octopus Attack. Enrico Somogyi/UPY 2024

“This shot was taken in Lembeh, Indonesia. The coconut octopus was sitting in a small hollow in the sand. In the background there is a shell where another coconut octopus was living. After I took some pictures, the octopus started to touch my lens. So, I was able to get this shoot with the important focus on the eye,” says Enrico Somogyi.

Bottlenose Dolphin In The Lagoon. Ilaria Mariagiulia Rizzuto/UPY 2024

“I have always dreamed of seeing dolphins in the wild and being able to photograph them. During a diving trip in the Red Sea my dream came true,” says Ilaria Mariagiulia Rizzuto. “At the end of the day we headed to a shallow lagoon where dolphins can be found. Once we arrived on site we waited to see some fins. Finally, on the horizon, the first fin appeared and then moments later everyone was in the water surrounded by about thirty bottlenose dolphins who interacted curiously without fear.”

Portrait Category

Grey Whale Connection. Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2024

“Encounters with gray whales in Pacific saltwater lagoons are extremely special. Known for their friendly and curious nature, gray whales often approach boats, allowing observers to witness distinctive behaviours like spy-hopping. This photo was taken from the boat, where the whale displayed a friendly gaze toward my camera, resembling a human look of curiosity and innocence,” says Rafael Fernandez Caballero. “During their migration from the Bering Sea to Baja California, these lagoons serve as crucial havens and winter maternity wards. With only around 1300 gray whales left, responsible practices of ecotourism are key to protect these giants. These special moments highlight the beauty and intelligence of the whales, creating enduring memories for both observers and, surely, the curious whales themselves.”

Attack from Above. Jon Anderson/UPY 2024

“Even more surprising than encountering a bird underwater is having the bird try to attack your camera while hunting for small fish in the kelp forest! Last summer at a popular Monterey dive site, the cormorants seemed to be more active and curious than usual. Knowing this, I planned a dive on a sunny afternoon hoping to catch a cormorant beneath the kelp forest pierced by the afternoon sun,” says Jon Anderson. “I had numerous cormorants approach me, peck at my head and tank, follow me around, and try to eat my camera. This one paused for a moment, perhaps after the seeing its self-reflection in my dome port, allowing me to capture a head on portrait. Countless species including these cormorants depend on healthy kelp forests to thrive. Unfortunately, local kelp forests have declined by over 80% in size in the last decade due to warmer waters and unchecked predation by urchins.”

Aquatic Primate. Suliman Alatiqi/UPY 2024

“During fieldwork at Phi Phi Islands, Thailand, spanning several weeks, I focused my efforts on documenting the behaviour of the crab-eating macaques, in particularly their water forages,” says Suliman Alatiqi. “The macaques have adapted very well to living around the sea and will venture into the water for various reasons including transportation, scavenging, cooling down and playing. Highly efficient swimmers, they can dive for up to half a minute and can cover short distances faster than most humans. This photo offers a rare glimpse of the swimming movement of a male macaque.”

Behavior Category

The End Of A Baitball. Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2024

Rafael Fernandez Caballero says, “I was fortunate enough to experience this unique spectacle in the open Pacific waters in Magdalena Bay at the end of 2023. Due to the warmer water this year caused by the climate phenomenon “El Niño”, more species than ever joined this hunt. Bait balls of sardines attracted a variety of predators, but the main stars of the show, visiting Baja in perhaps larger numbers than ever, were the Bryde’s whales. They patrolled the waters, searching for bait balls to get their bellies full of hundreds of kilograms of fish. This photo shows the very moment of attack, with the whale’s ventral pleats wide open and filtering the prey from the water using their baleens after engulfing hundreds of kilograms of sardines in one bite — simply unforgettable.”

Mouth To Mouth. JingGong Zhang/UPY 2024

“This is a photo of two female Zoarchias major eelpouts in a fight. During the breeding season, in order to fight for a suitable spawning nest, not only the males will fight each other, but also the females, and inexplicably, even the males and females will sometimes fight each other,” says JingGong Zhang. “Usually, they can only be found in very few places of southern Japan. I thought long and hard before shooting, how to perfectly present their two biggest characteristics in the shot: their unique spotted pattern inside the mouth and that the mouth that can open up to 180 degrees! My choice was to shoot the fight in its most intense moment, using a snooted strobe to create the black background. I’m very honoured to share this charming moment.”

A tiger shark feeds on a humpbackwhale carcass. Brooke Pyke/UPY 2024

“When a whale falls to the ocean floor, nothing goes to waste. A young humpback whale’s carcass lay slumped on the sand, and within a few days, the bones had already been stripped. This lone tiger shark remained at the scene cleaning every scrap it can scavenge. The meat from this death will have fed countless sharks of all types, fish and sea birds. This huge transfer of energy travelled all the way from Antarctica to arrive on the Ningaloo,” Brooke Pyke says. “It is as if this section of the reef has won the lottery. This is one of the most moving scenes I have ever photographed, I was both emotional and yet mesmerised by the pure, raw beauty it.”

Wrecks Category

Chieftain Tanks. Martin Broen/UPY 2024

“Together with an amazing group of photographers I had the honor to be invited to compete in the 1st Aqaba underwater photo competition in Jordan, where a highlight is the underwater military museum. An unusual sight of war machines sunk in 15 to 28 meters of water and stationed along the reefs in tactical battle formation. I wanted to capture the symmetry of the Chieftain Tanks and strong presence of their 120mm guns, but the position where I could shoot that image with my fish-eye lens was occupied by a military ambulance,” says Martin Broen. “Therefore, I experimented with a 6 shot panorama from a point between the guns, which allowed me to recreate the virtual position further back, and achieve and elegant symmetry of the tanks, supported by the central focal point of my dive buddy in the back.”

Illuminating the Past. Becky Kagan Schott /UPY 2024

“This is an image I’ve been trying to perfect for almost 6 years. I’ve had various conditions on the wreck of the Kyle Spangler over the years and tried to get this shot several times. Once there was too much ambient light so the lights didn’t punch through the water as much and it looked dull and other times the visibility wasn’t good or the thermocline came down too far which cut the top of the 30 meter tall mast off. The wreck sits in about 60 meters of cold water in the Great Lakes so there is little time down there to shoot. This past summer we had stellar conditions and I’m grateful to Jesper Rydstron and Fredrik Christiansson for modeling. It was dark enough that the lights really created a ghostly image of this wooden schooner that sank in 1860.”

Set sail. Fabi Fregonesi/UPY 2024

“This wreck is called Virgo and is located in Recife in Brazil. It was sunk in 2017 to be a dive site and is 25 meters from another wreck called the Taurus. On this day, I started diving the Taurus and when I arrived at the Virgo, I saw this huge school of fish, which instantly reminded me of the shape of a boat sail. The feeling I had at the time was that the ship was ready to set sail, beginning its journey towards an unknown adventure (even though the original boat was not a sailing boat),” says Fabi Fregonesi.

British Waters Compact Category

Catshark in Bootlace. Jon Bunker/UPY 2024

“The bootlace weed can sometimes completely blanket the pebbles overlooking the reef at Chesil Cove, Dorset in the summer. Scores of catshark, cuttles, young conger and other night time predators patrol this seasonal ‘jungle’ slope, happy to snack on whatever comes their way,” says Jon Bunker. “This sleepy catshark was, as you can see, unsure what to make of me, poking its head tentatively through the weed to establish if I was either threat or food.”

Fluorescent Fire. James Lynott/UPY 2024

“I have experimented a little with shutter drag/motion blur photography in the past and have seen many incredible examples of this style from other underwater photographers. I had never seen this technique combined with underwater fluorescence, so this was something I was keen to start trying in 2023,” says James Lynott. “I experimented with a range of subjects and soon discovered I really liked how fireworks anemones looked using this method, which was not really a surprise as they are my favourite fluoro subject!”

Singled out. James Lynott/UPY 2024

“One of my favourite things about diving is you never know what you are going to find, even at sites you have dived multiple times,” says James Lynott. “This image was captured at a site in Loch Leven which I have visited many times yet keep going back to, for that exact reason. This dive certainly did deliver a wonderful surprise, a huge smack of moon jellyfish at around 20m depth.”

British Waters Living Together Category

Bottled Blenny. Kirsty Andrews/UPY 2024

Says Kirsty Andrews, “Butterfly blennies naturally choose abandoned whelk shells as their home but it seems they can get creative. On the seabed of the river Fal, amongst beautiful pink maerl, many have chosen to use discarded glass bottles as a shelter. Waste not want not.”

Pier Leg Life. Kirsty Andrews/UPY 2024

“Piers seem a real attraction for marine wildlife, providing shelter and an artificial reef,” says Kirsty Andrews. “This one was no different, covered in plumose anemones with a stand-out sea urchin. I liked the drama of the pier legs in this frame and the contrast between the man made structure and the soft animal life covering it.”

British Beauties. Lewis Jefferies/UPY 2024

“This image was captured during a photo commission for PADI to help promote UK and cold-water diving at Porthkerris Divers, Cornwall. Regarded as one of the UK’s best shore dives, Drawna rock is a small pinnacle that drops to around 20 meters at high tide,” says Lewis Jefferies. “Bursting with life, it provided an excellent location for a shoot celebrating UK diving!”

British Waters Macro Category

Star Attraction. Jenny Stock/UPY 2024

“Loch Leven is a Scottish dive site near Oban that can be can easily be accessed via a lay-by on the A82. Once there a walk down a steep leafy track will lead you into the ‘refreshing’ water. As I descended into the dark green depths of the sea loch, on a dusk dive, I approached an area where my torch picked out the vivid colours of a living carpet of thousands of brittlestars,” says Jenny Stock. “Captivated by the variety of hues and patterns each star took, I felt this was an incredible encounter with a species I’d never seen before.”

Midnight Raver. Sandra Stalker/UPY 2024

“I find the crabs to have such bold and funny characters whilst running up to me and then away wildly flailing their legs like ravers and I wanted to capture this character. The crab didn’t really stand out much from the sand so I used a purple light on a torch for the back ground and then I snooted the crab with white light on a strobe, tracking it as it ran across the seabed for the long exposure,” says Sandra Stalker. “This made a lovely contrast of the green of the crab against the purple with the crab looking directly at the camera.”

Moonlight Wonderland. Sandra Stalker/UPY 2024

“I had this shot in mind when I started the dive at Kimmeridge back in the summer,” says Sandra Stalker. “I had on my home made part vintage lens and there had been plenty of stalked jellyfish around the previous week. However, as with all UK diving nothing is quite guaranteed and I didn’t find a single stalky until near the end of the dive…”

British Waters Wide Angle Category

Divebomb. Kat Zhou/UPY 2024

“I took this photo during a trip to dive with Northern Gannets in Shetland. The experience of being amidst dive-bombing gannets is both chaotic and adrenaline-fueled, and it was hard to choose where to aim my camera! I tried to photograph any bird that zoomed by, and I was pleasantly surprised when I later saw how this shot was able to depict the dynamic motion of the experience,” says Kat Zhou.

9.British Waters Wide Angle

Bass Bass Bass. Kirsty Andrews/UPY 2024

I must credit my skipper Danny Daniels in part for this image: as I readied myself to jump into the water next to this offshore lighthouse, he said “Kirsty I’m about to drop you right on top of a big school of bass” – he’d seen the fish on his echo sounder. So thank you Danny! …[A]s the school swirled around me for brief moments, I managed to capture this shot. As always in such moments, I was feeling pure joy at being surrounded by fish, immersed in the shoal.”

Boat exploration. Rick Ayrton/UPY 2024

Rick Ayrton says, “This was one of 3 U-boats sunk by a deeply placed minefield in the Bristol Channel [sunk off North Cornwall in late 1944 or early 1945]. The bow, unseen in this image is broken off lying on its port side. None of the crew survived and remain entombed in the wreckage making this a rather sobering dive.”

Up & Coming Category

Window of Opportunity. Lisa Stengel/UPY 2024

“The moment of ambush amidst a blur of evasion! This photo captures the instant of the attack. We spent an exciting week looking for bait balls, which provided many opportunities. The season’s unique water temperatures kept the marlin farther from reach, but brought an interesting phenomenon: an unprecedented amount of mahi mahi,” says Lisa Stengel. “I chose not to wear a hood and noticed a distinct noise from the bait ball every time the mahi would attempt to hit a target. If you listen closely, there’s an enormous amount of sound in the ocean, especially surrounding bait balls. I honed in on the sound of mahi attacks and followed this unmistakeable sound with my camera. This technique, coupled with serendipitous conditions gave me the window of opportunity to capture this special moment.”

Category 8. Up & Coming

Encircled. Sarah O’Gorman/UPY 2024

“Summer 2023 brought the usual small groups of baby barracudas to each coral pinnacle on the house reef at Marsa Shagra, but for the first time in the 11 years I have lived there, they all gradually came together as one giant bait ball in the entrance of the bay, giving divers no choice but to pass through them at the start and end of their dive,” says Sarah O’Gorman. “Snorkelers spent hours every day floating above them, mesmerised by their movements. One particularly clear and quiet morning, I was able to witness and photograph this free diver as she played amongst them, influencing their formation for as long as her breath would last. As autumn passed, the juveniles grew and the bait ball attracted hunters such as snappers, jacks and bigger barracudas who feasted for several months, and by winter it was if it had never existed.”

Lion’s Lair. Bryan H. Blauvelt/UPY 2024

“My goal on my first visit to this magical destination [Raja Ampat, Indonesia ] was to create a photograph that captured the explosion of life, colour and texture that comes to mind when thinking about the ‘Classic Raja Ampat’ marine environment,” says Bryan H. Blauvelt. “This lionfish nestled up to a black crinoid feather star and framed by hundreds of tiny glass fish caught my attention and became a favourite image from the year of shooting. A fisheye lens and mini dome allowed me to approach within inches of the subject, filling the frame with the scene.”

Black & White Category

Water Dancers. Jasmine Skye Smith/UPY 2024

“I challenged myself to be outside of my comfort zone and push myself creatively. I approached some girls from the synchronised swimming team to do a shoot and I booked the heated dive pool as it was our winter…” Jasmine Skye Smith says. “The two 6x3m backdrops only held in place for a few minutes before coming apart – and this was one of the magical captures in that short window.”

Great Whites On Patrol. Matty Smith/UPY 2024

“The conditions were perfect on this day at South Neptune Island. We had a dozen sharks swimming under the MV Rodney Fox and visibility of 30m+. The weather was calm, sunny and the ocean was mirror like,” says Matty Smith. “Using a slow shutter, full power strobes and a panning technique, I was able to freeze the movement of the closest shark whilst portraying the gentle movement and atmosphere of the scene in the seagrass.”

Serge Melesan/UPY 2024. Dolphins At The Surface.

“I have been a scuba diver for a long time, but since living in Mayotte I like to swim at the surface and see this incredible life, like these bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins here are shy and you can’t approach them or use flash. My goal was to a family image to show that they are hierarchical animals, and to include the surface in the picture to show that these animals are there just below the surface of the sea,” says Serge Melesan. “To be honest, the lines of light on the dolphins was a lucky strike, but when I came back home and saw this image I thought it could be a UPY finalist. Sometimes to be there you need to be a bit lucky.”

Save Our Seas/Marine Conservation Category

Spotlighting marine conservation, Portuguese photographer, Nuno Sá, was named ‘Save Our Seas Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2024, with his photo ‘Saving Goliath’, taken in Portugal.

Saving Goliath. Nuno Sá/UPY 2024

“The golden beaches of Costa da Caparica, just across the river from Lisbon were packed with sun seekers on this sunny day. And then something unusual caught their attention on the horizon. A massive sperm whale seemed to be struggling to swim as it slowly moved towards the coast. Soon its giant wounded body was passing by surfers and swimmers and reaching the shallow waters of the beach,” says Nuno Sá. “But suddenly dozens of sun seekers start running towards the whale. Together they push and chant trying to help the giant back into the sea, as it slowly slaps its tail back and forth, and breathes heavily. Several hours later the whale takes its last breath, its body crushed by gravity as it lays on the sand. An estimated 20,000 whales are killed every year, and many more injured, after being struck by ships-and few people even realise that it happens.”

Helping Hands for Cornwall’s Lobsters. Lewis Jefferies /UPY 2024

“A technician from The National Lobster Hatchery (NLH) releases juvenile lobsters into a rockpool at St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall. The NLH in Padstow receives egg-bearing female lobsters from local fishermen, and then care for them in captivity until they release their eggs,” says Lewis Jefferies. “The hatchlings are reared through their smallest, vulnerable stages before being released into the wild. A process that increased their chances of survival by up to 1,000 times! Stock enhancement initiatives like this complement fisheries management measures to help conserve and sustain exploited, commercially valuable species.”

Very bad luck. Javier Murcia/UPY 2024

Every year thousands of marine seabirds are caught in fishing gear from all the seas and oceans of the planet, from longlines to nets. In the coastal lagoon of the Mar Menor it occurs very often with several species of diving birds,” says Javier Murcia. “These seabirds are divers and look for fish to feed on. During their dives they become trapped in nets that they cannot see and die because they cannot breathe: a slow and agonizing death. On many occasions these fishing gears are illegal (such as in this image) and on this occasion an adult specimen of the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) died. It is a very sad situation.”

Macro Category

An abstract portrait of a Potbelly Seahorse. Talia Greis/UPY 2024

Talia Greis says, “I was drawn to this particular seahorse because it had especially distinguished markings around the eye, and the jaw-dropping colour palette made a striking contrast with the surrounding coral. Whilst seahorses are not rare on Sydney dive sites, photographing one that can really stand out has always been a dream for me.”

Lonesome drifter. Dennis Corpuz/UPY 2024

“While I was exploring the area, I came across a pyrosome (an unusual tubular planktonic animal) that was 10cm (4 inches) long,” Dennis Corpuz says. “As I examined it carefully, I discovered that an animal was hiding inside it. The creature was floating in mid-water and moving randomly. Luckily, I managed to capture a few shots of it before it drifted away into deeper waters.”

Double Pygmy. Byron Conory /UPY 2024

Byron Conory says, “I always like when a common subject that has been photographed a lot is shot in a different way, I decided to dedicate a number of dives to shooting Pygmy seahorses for this reason. After exploring all the sites in Lembeh we found one fan that had 14 of them…”

Wide Angle Category

Whale Bones. Alex Dawson/UPY 2024

“In eastern Greenland the local hunters bring their catch and share it among each other. From a stable population of over 100 000 minke whales in the North Atlantic the hunters of Tasiilaq typically take less than a dozen,” says Alex Dawson. “The whale is pulled up on the beach during high tide and many families gather to cut the skin, blubber and the meat off at low tide. Almost all the whale is consumed, however the skeleton is pulled back into the sea by the next high tide and the remains can be found in shallow waters where various marine invertebrates and fish pick the bones clean.”

Wild and Free. Remuna Beca/UPY 2024

“A pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins swimming wild and free in the Bahamas. Interacting with these highly intelligent cetaceans in their natural environment is an unforgettable experience and over the last three years I travelled to Bimini where a resident population is known for their playfulness with freedivers. They are incredibly fast and acrobatic, making most encounters high-energy and unpredictable, which can be challenging to photograph. I wanted to create an image that captured their playful spirit and the serene beauty of seeing them in the wild—a stark contrast to those most people unfortunately only see in captivity,” says Remuna Beca. “On this day we found a large pod of thirty individuals and as I positioned myself near the bottom, a group separated towards me in perfect symmetry with a juvenile gracefully cantered below. This image captures our moment of connection and for me symbolizes the perfect balance of nature.”

Twilight smile. Rodolphe Guignard/UPY 2024

Rodolphe Guignard says, “In 2011, the Bahamas declared its waters a ‘shark sanctuary’. Off the island of Grand Bahama, I witnessed several unforgettable encounters. At dusk, several dozen lemon sharks rise from the depths and surround the dive boat. Perched on the swim-step with my body half-submerged, I set out to take split shots. On this day the sea was rough, it was almost dark, and the sharks were lively and very curious, not hesitating to come into contact with my housing…With a lot of patience and luck, I was able to capture some very close-up shots, and highlight the magnificent colours of the sunset. A striking face-to-face encounter!”

The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest is based in the United Kingdom and also has several categories spotlighting British photographers.  Find out more about the Underwater Photographer of the Year contest at their website.

You can view last year’s winners here.

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