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Swirling seals win top underwater photography honors

While waves may roil and sunlight might dance atop the water, often the most interesting activity happens underneath the surface.

Since 1965, the Underwater Photographer of the Year awards have been focused on this fascinating underwater realm. The competition “celebrates photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools.” Winners are selected in 13 categories including up-and-coming photographers, marine conservation and British photographers.

French photographer Greg Lecoeur is this year’s Underwater Photographer of the Year, winning with the image above. His photo earned top honors out of 5,500 entries from photographers from 70 countries.

Called “Frozen Mobile Home,” his image features a group of crabeater seals swirling gracefully around an iceberg in Antarctica. It also won in the Wide Angle category.

“Massive and mysterious habitats,” explains Lecoeur, “little is known about how wildlife thrives around these mobile homes. Icebergs fertilize the oceans by carrying nutrients from land that spark blooms of marine life and also provide homes for larger animals, like these crabeater seals.”

You can see the other winning images below, including an octopus with a soccer ball and a smiling dolphin, You can also download the 2020 yearbook, which showcases all of this year’s 125 finalists.

Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year

'Lemon Shark Nursery'

‘Lemon Shark Nursery’ (Photo: © Anita Kainrath/UPY 2020)

“The Bahamas has been a shark sanctuary since 2011 but mangroves aren’t protected yet and that’s where these lemon shark pups spend the first 5-8 years of their lives,” writes photographer Anita Kainrath in describing her winning photo. “I was standing in knee-high water, trying to hold my camera still, waiting for the sharks. Trying not to move when you have mosquitoes and sand-flies buzzing around you was probably the part I struggled with the most at this moment.

“After less than one hour the little predators came closer and finally swam around my feet and my camera, bumping against me and trying to taste my strobes. They are curious little fellas but you need time to gain their trust and I love observing them in their natural habitat and that’s what I wanted to capture. They are such characters and we need to protect their nurseries in order to make sure their population is not declining.”

British Underwater Photographer of the Year

'Rabbit Fish Zoom Blur'

‘Rabbit Fish Zoom Blur’ (Photo: © Nicholas More/UPY 2020)

“I have been taking motion blur pictures for a few years now. I like how the technique adds dynamism to pictures. The picture was taken in Raja Ampat, Indonesia in November 2019 and I spent the morning taking fish portrait images,” says Nicholas More.

“I came across a school of very friendly rabbit fish under a jetty and took lots of schooling shots. I started using the extensive zoom range of my Sigma 17-70 combined with a slow shutter speed to create zoom blur images. The picture came together when the school bunched tightly together in a vertical tower with them all facing onto the camera. I hit the shutter and zoomed in at the same time, the flash freezing the central fish with the ambient light creating a pop-art like effect.”

Most Promising British Underwater Photographer of the Year

'Commotion in the Ocean'

‘Commotion in the Ocean’ (Photo: Nur Tucker/UPY 2020)

“This image shows my very favorite of the species, the thorny sea horse. Over time, I have tried many different techniques, with varying degrees of success, including backlighting, side lighting, snooting, panning, double exposure and silhouette shots. I love experimenting even if this comes at the expense of a wasted dive,” says Nur Tucker.

“On this particular dive, in Dumaguete (Philippines), I was keen to aim for something different and potentially offbeat. I began with a panning shot of the sea horse, captured with a 1/4 second shutter speed and a small, f/25 aperture. Then, I used the same settings to capture a panning shot of a shiny scouring pad, carried in my pocket. Both images were merged, in-camera, for the resulting double exposure shot. I must have repeated this sequence 50 times before eventually achieving this one when he made eye contact, which pleased me.”

Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year

'Last Dawn, Last Gasp'

‘Last Dawn, Last Gasp’ (Photo: © Pasquale Vassallo/UPY 2020)

“This winter, I went diving with some local fishermen. At 6 in the morning I was already in the water, as the nets were raised at first light,” writes Pasquale Vassallo. “During the dive I followed the path of the fishing nets from the bottom to the surface. As the fishermen quickly hauled on the nets, I tried to take some shots of trapped fish still suffering in the mesh, such as this tuna (Euthynnus alletteratus).”


'Goby Goodness'

‘Goby Goodness’ (Photo: © Hannes Klostermann/UPY 2020)

“During the dive that I took this image on I swam a grand total of about 30 meters. I dropped down from the surface and descended towards the shallow, pristine coral reef in the Cayman Islands when I spotted this little fella posing right at the top of a coral head,” says Hannes Klostermann.

“I noticed the purple sea fan in the background and suspected it would look pleasing with a shallow depth of field, a look I really like in macro photography. After I had taken the first image and reviewed it I knew I would spend the entire dive with this goby, as the complementary colors of the fan and coral head worked very well together. Thankfully, the goby really seemed to enjoy the prime spot at the top of the coral head so it kept coming back to have its picture taken, not minding my close approach one bit.”


'The Engine'

‘The Engine’ (Photo: © Tobias Friedrich/UPY 2020)

“Panoramic image of the engine room of the Chrisoula K. [in Egypt] with six video lights placed behind the engines. I went there on several trips with a live-aboard, being able to check out the possibilities of creating some different lighting in the wrecks. But usually the boats do only 1-2 dives per wreck, so I had to be quick in decisions,” writes Tobias Friedrich.

“The space between the engine inside the wreck is very narrow and the angle for a single photo was just not enough, so I thought it was the best idea to create a panoramic image to display the machine room in one shot. Placing the lights took some time as well to find the right mix of ambiance and light from the outside. Because the wreck is dived a lot in the Red Sea I had to wait for a good slot when nobody was inside it.”


'Octopus Training'

‘Octopus Training’ (Photo: © Pasquale Vassallo/UPY 2020)

“At the end of a session of free diving, I noticed a soccer ball, in the distance and on the surface. Intrigued I approached it, and then I noticed that below it was an octopus that was being pulled along by the current,” writes Pasquale Vassallo, about his photo, shot in the Tyrrhenian Sea in Naples.

“I do not know what it was doing under the ball, but I think it is training for the next football World Cup! There was time for me to take a couple of shots before the octopus let go of the ball and dropped back to the seabed.”


'Butterfly Effect'

‘Butterfly Effect’ (Photo: © Lilian Koh/UPY 2020)

“Having been immersed mostly in creative macro, this is the first time I have used a snoot technique on a larger scale. Maintaining a shallow depth to capture the reflection, the snoot is used to bring focus to the model while the blue light catches the flowing veil that frames around her creating a butterfly effect,” says Lilian Koh.

Black & White

'Layered Thoughts'

‘Layered Thoughts’ (Photo: © Mok Wai Hoe/UPY 2020)

“The creation of this image was inspired by in-camera double exposure photography,” writes Mok Wai Hoe. “This abstract style typically involves re-exposing the silhouette of a person against a textured background such as urban landscape. I was mesmerized by the aesthetics as well as the extensive possibilities of interpreting this form of visual art. At the same time, I also found no examples of the style applied underwater.

“Fueled with inspiration, I spent a year researching and experimenting to marry this technique with underwater photography. This black and white image was made by first shooting a silhouette against a cloudy afternoon sky. The picture was then re-exposed against the image of a coral garden. While this image pays homage to subjects most dear to me, I hope that viewers could find their own meaning as they juxtapose the elements and contrasting textures in the picture.”



‘ULUNA LILY’ (Photo: © MANBD/UPY 2020)

“Uluna Lake in North Sulawesi [Malaysia] located 670 meters above sea level is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. When I got the opportunity to dive in this freshwater lake at the end of last year, I knew what I wanted to shoot,” writes MANBD.

“As I stayed at YOS Dive Lembeh Eco Resort, the journey to the lake took less than two hours. This crystal clear springs lake is famous for its water lilies which only bloom in the morning and blue sky gave a good contrast when shooting. Geared with a mini dome, I did my level best to shoot a split shot and staying very still to find the right angle and moment.”

British Waters Wide Angle

'Jewel Reef'

‘Jewel Reef’ (Photo: © Arthur Kingdon/UPY 2020)

“The Isles of Scilly offer underwater photographers some of the best opportunities for wide angle photography in the U.K. so I was determined to make the most of it when I visited for a week in September 2019. This image was shot at a site whose location is known only to the excellent skipper of Dive Scilly and it proved to be a stunning site with jewel anemones everywhere,” writes Arthur Kingdon.

“This was the first dive of the week and it was my first dive with my new camera and housing. After a shot to check exposure and lighting, I took this one and it proved to be the best of the week! I was helped by some fine modelling by Paula who had opted to leave her camera behind on this dive. Her offer to model was very gratefully accepted.”

British Waters Macro

'Like Water for Silk'

‘Like Water for Silk’ (Photo: © Laura Storm/UPY 2020)

“Over the past couple of years, I’ve been photographing British freshwater habitats underwater. One of the stories that has captivated me is that of the common frog. During its lifetime it has an estimated 0.25% chance of survival. It morphs like no other creature and along the way, experiences the most fantastic journey,” says Laura Storm.

“This tiny common froglet is less than 1 centimeter in length. It is so weightless it can balance on single, silken stands of Spirogyra. These algae filaments, an abundant and vital first link in freshwater food webs, reproduce rapidly leading to thousands of individual strands. They are a simple life form which combine into a tangled labyrinth known as water silk.

“To highlight the water silk habitat, I used two off-camera lights strategically placed. One to help light the tiny froglet and the other to allow the tangle of algae strands to shine through.”

British Waters Living Together

'Pier nursery'

‘Pier nursery’ (Photo: © Dan Bolt/UPY 2020)

“This image shows how important man-made structures can be for marine life. Paignton Pier, in South Devon is no exception. The pier legs are home to many sponges, anemones and mollusks, while in the summer months many hundreds of juvenile fish use the structure as shelter from larger predators,” says Dan Bolt.

“Diving under the pier with the sun shining through the shallow water it can be hard to believe you’re in the U.K.!”

British Waters Compact


‘Smile’ (Photo: © Colin Garrett/UPY 2020)

“Early in April 2019, sightings of a lone male bottlenose dolphin had started to be reported in and around Portland Harbour [Dorest, U.K.]. I had been out on a local wreck dive with Dale Spree and Jessica Hannah and had had a strange feeling beforehand that the chances of meeting him were quite high,” writes Colin Garrett. “The dive itself came and went with no sighting. But fortune was to be on our side, for on our return across the harbor Dale spotted the distinctive dorsal fin. As the animal approached us, Jessica and I slipped in with just snorkeling equipment and waited, hoping…

“It turned out he wasn’t nervous in the slightest and swam straight to the camera. I cannot recall who’s smile was the largest. His or mine?”

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.