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French underwater photographer wins Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Fascinating image taken by biologist Laurent Ballesta captures the spawning of camouflage groupers in Fakarava, French Polynesia

author icon By APB Staff | 4 November 2021

Creation © Laurent Ballesta, France Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Grand Title Winner

‘Creation’ | Laurent Ballesta, France | Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Grand Title Winner

French underwater photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta has been announced as this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image, Creation, which captures a group of camouflage groupers exiting their milky cloud of eggs and sperm in Fakarava atoll, French Polynesia.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. The winning image was selected from more than 50,000 entries across 95 countries, with the winners revealed at an online awards ceremony held on October 12.

Every year, for five years, Laurent and his team returned to this lagoon, diving day and night so as not to miss the annual spawning that only takes place around the full moon in July. After dark, they were joined by hundreds of grey reef sharks, hunting the groupers in packs. Overfishing threatens this vulnerable species, but here the fish are protected within a special biosphere reserve.

Chair of the judging panel, Rosamund Kidman Cox says: “The image works on so many levels. It is surprising, energetic, and intriguing and has an otherworldly beauty. It also captures a magical moment – a truly explosive creation of life – leaving the tail-end of the exodus of eggs hanging for a moment like a symbolic question mark.”

See some of the other winners below:
© Adam Oswell, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Elephant in the room’ | Adam Oswell, Australia | Winner: Photojournalism, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Adam Oswell (Australia) draws attention to zoo visitors watching a young elephant perform underwater. Although this performance was promoted as educational and as exercise for the elephants, Adam was disturbed by this scene. Organisations concerned with the welfare of captive elephants view performances like these as exploitative because they encourage unnatural behaviour.

Elephant tourism has increased across Asia. In Thailand, there are now more elephants in captivity than in the wild. The Covid-19 pandemic caused international tourism to collapse, leading to elephant sanctuaries becoming overwhelmed with animals that can no longer be looked after by their owners.

© Martin Gregus, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Cool time, from land time for sea bears’ | Martin Gregus, Canada / Slovakia | Winner, Rising Star Portfolio Award, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Martin Gregus (Canada/Slovakia) shows polar bears in a different light as they come ashore in summer.

On a hot summer’s day, two female polar bears took to the shallow intertidal waters to cool off and play. Martin used a drone to capture this moment. For him, the heart shape symbolises the apparent sibling affection between them and “the love we as people owe to the natural world”.

Martin spent three weeks on his boat using various techniques to photograph polar bears around Hudson Bay. Polar bears are mostly solitary and, while living on sea ice, can be dispersed over vast areas. Coming ashore in summer, they live mainly off their fat reserves and, with less pressure to find food, become much more sociable. While not wanting to detract from their plight in the face of climate change, Martin wanted to show polar bears in a different light.

© Justin Gilligan, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Rich reflections’ | Justin Gilligan, Australia | Winner: Plants and Fungi, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Justin Gilligan (Australia) creates the reflection of a marine ranger among the seaweed. At the world’s southernmost tropical reef, Justin wanted to show how careful human management helps preserve this vibrant seaweed jungle. With only a 40-minute window where tide conditions were right, it took three days of trial and error before Justin got his image.

Impacts of climate change, such as increasing water temperature, are affecting the reefs at an ever-increasing rate. Seaweed forests support hundreds of species, capture carbon, produce oxygen and help protect shorelines.

© João Rodrigues, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Where the giant newts breed’ | João Rodrigues, Portugal | Winner, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

João Rodrigues (Portugal) is surprised by a pair of courting sharp-ribbed salamanders in the flooded forest. It was João’s first chance in five years to dive in this lake as it only emerges in winters of exceptionally heavy rainfall, when underground rivers overflow. He had a split second to adjust his camera settings before the newts swam away.

Found on the Iberian Peninsula and in northern Morocco, sharp-ribbed newts (or salamanders) are named after their defence strategy. They use their pointed ribs as weapons, piercing through their own skin and picking up poisonous secretions, then jabbing them into an attacker.

© Jennifer Hayes, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Nursery meltdown’ | Jennifer Hayes, USA | Winner: Oceans: The Bigger Picture, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Jennifer Hayes (USA) records harp seals, seal pups and the blood of birth against melting sea ice. Following a storm, it took hours of searching by helicopter to find this fractured sea ice used as a birthing platform by harp seals. “It was a pulse of life that took your breath away,” says Jennifer.

Every autumn, harp seals migrate south from the Arctic to their breeding grounds, delaying births until the sea ice forms. Seals depend on the ice, which means that future population numbers are likely to be affected by climate change.

© Javier Lafuente, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Road to ruin’ | Javier Lafuente, Spain | Winner, Wetlands – The Bigger Picture, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Javier Lafuente (Spain) shows the stark, straight line of a road slicing through the curves of the wetland landscape. By manoeuvring his drone and inclining the camera, Javier dealt with the challenges of sunlight reflected by the water and ever-changing light conditions. He captured the pools as flat colours, varying according to the vegetation and mineral content.

Dividing the wetland in two, this road was constructed in the 1980s to provide access to a beach. The tidal wetland is home to more than a hundred species of birds, with ospreys and bee-eaters among many migratory visitors.

© Angel Fitor, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Face-off, from Cichlids of Planet Tanganyika’ | Angel Fitor, Spain | Winner, Portfolio Award, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Angel Fitor (Spain) provides an intimate look into the lives of cichlid fishes in Lake Tanganyika.

Two male cichlid fish fight jaw to jaw over a snail shell. Inside the half-buried shell is a female ready to lay eggs. For three weeks Angel monitored the lake bed looking for such disputes. The biting and pushing lasts until the weaker fish gives way. This struggle was over in seconds but lasted just long enough for Angel to get his winning shot.

Lake Tanganyika, the oldest of the East African Great Lakes, is home to more than 240 species of cichlid fishes. Each has a unique body shape, size and behaviour to fill every kind of ecological niche. But despite teeming with life, this incredible ecosystem is under threat. Angel has worked on cichlids for two decades, braving difficult diving conditions to photograph their behaviour. Recently, chemical runoff from agriculture, sewage and over-exploitation by the unregulated ornamental fish trade have driven some cichlid populations towards extinction.

© Alex Mustard, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

‘Bedazzled’ | Alex Mustard, UK | Winner, Natural Artistry, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

Alex Mustard (UK) finds a ghost pipefish hiding among the arms of a feather star.

Alex had always wanted to capture this image of a juvenile ghost pipefish but usually only found darker adults on matching feather stars. His image conveys the confusion a predator would likely face when encountering this kaleidoscope of colour and pattern.

The juvenile’s loud colours signify that it landed on the coral reef in the past 24 hours. In a day or two, its colour pattern will change, enabling it to blend in with the feather star.

Next year’s competition is now open for entries, with free entry for photographers under the age of 17: www.nhm.ac.uk/wpy/competition