See the winning images for Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Under deep water, the camera flash captures an explosion of new life. Two groupers, which have just mated, emerge from a cloud of eggs and sperm in Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia. Mating is so rare and fleeting that it only takes place once a year, for about 30 minutes, around the full moon in July. Photographer Laurent Ballesta spent 3,000 hours trying to capture it.
For his photography of this extraordinary phenomenon, called “Creation”, Ballesta, a frequent photographer at National Geographic, won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year, awarded today by the Natural History Museum in London, which holds the competition every year. and presents an exhibition of the winners.
The photograph, titled “Creation,” captures “a magical moment,” Roz Kidman Cox, president of the jury, said in a press release. “It’s surprising, energetic and intriguing, and has an otherworldly beauty.”
Museum director Doug Gurr called the photograph a “compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we don’t address humanity’s impact on our planet.”
Fakarava Atoll, a UNESCO biosphere reserve protected from commercial activities, is home to several threatened and endangered species. Here, the marbled grouper, threatened by large-scale fishing, is safe, at least from humans. During grouper mating season, hundreds of gray reef sharks come out at night to feed on fish nearly two feet long, whose state of conservation is unknown, according to the International Union for the Conservation of nature, which assesses the global conservation status of a species.
Besides knowing that mating would take place around the full moon in June or July, Ballesta had no way of predicting when, which meant he had to maximize his time underwater. In 2014, he created a diving protocol, the first of its kind, that would allow him to spend a full 24 hours 65 feet under the ocean while limiting decompression time. The feat required careful calibration to find the right mixture of gases in his oxygen tank, a dedicated dive team and a great deal of mental toughness, he says.
His carefully planned strategy worked. Swimming among thousands of marbled groupers and hundreds of gray reef sharks without the perceived protection of a shark cage or metal shark suit, “it took time to develop intuition that we do not. Wouldn’t be bitten, “Ballesta told National Geographic in 2018.” We had to feel confident enough that when they bump into us, so hard that sometimes we bruise, we have to stay calm. They see us as obstacles, not prey. (See more of Ballesta’s work to document this surreal phenomenon in National Geographic history.)
The competition, now in its 57th year, recognizes 19 categories of wildlife photography, including behavior, photojournalism and portraiture. This year, the competition received 50,000 entries from photographers around the world. The judges looked for innovation, storytelling and technical skills. (See last year’s winners here.)
Vidyun R. Hebbar, 10, from India, won the award for Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the competition’s other top honor, for her up-close photograph of a tent spider, bathed in lights and rainbow colors of a passing rickshaw.
Two other frequent National Geographic photographers were also honored. Jennifer Hayes won the âOceans: Bigger Imageâ category for her image of harp seals and their hatchlings on fractured arctic ice. New this year, the âbig pictureâ categories honor photography that highlights critical ecosystems, such as the shrinking Arctic sea ice, on which harp seals rely to breed. It took Hayes hours of helicopter research to find the winning scene, which she describes as “a breathtaking life spur.”
Brent Stirton won the photo essay category for his work documenting chimpanzees and their caregivers at the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center in South Africa, which rescues and rehabilitates primates orphaned by poaching. Babies are often sold, sometimes for pets. “As a result,” Stirton wrote on Instagram, “many of these chimps have lived lives of isolation, suffering and cruelty.” In Lwiro, more than a hundred young chimpanzees receive individual care to relieve their psychological and physical trauma. (See the full National Geographic story here.)
âThese dedicated caregivers raise baby chimpanzees like their own children,â Stirton writes.