In photographs: fascinating underwater worlds

Lucy Purdy

From intertwined ‘love bird’ swans to a herd of hungry seahorses, the winning shots from this year’s Underwater Photographer of the Year awards capture the breadth and beauty of our aquatic ecosystems

Underwater Photographer of the Year is a UK-based annual competition that celebrates photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes and even swimming pools.

British photographer Phil Smith was the first ever Underwater Photographer of the Year, named in 1965. Today, the competition has 11 categories, testing photographers with themes such as macro, wide angle, behaviour and wreck photography, as well as three categories for photos taken specifically in British waters.

We pick some of our favourite shots from this year’s competition.

Diving deep: 10 standout shots

British underwater photographer of the year: Grant Thomas (UK)
Love Birds – Luss Pier, Loch Lomond, Scotland

Love Birds: Grant Thomas/UPY 2018

“I have always been fascinated by over-under photography, connecting the everyday terrestrial world that we all know with the less familiar underwater secrets,” Thomas said. “I chose Loch Lomond as the location for this shot due to its idyllic scenery, water access and friendly swans. My initial idea was to frame a split shot of one swan feeding below the surface of the water but when I noticed how comfortable they were around me I was confident, with some patience, I could get that magical shot of the two. It was midday, sun high in the sky, when I waded slowly into the shallow water, allowing the swans to become comfortable with my presence. When they began searching for food below the water line I just had to wait for that perfect moment of synchronicity.”

Winner, macro category: Shane Gross (Canada)
Seahorse Density – Bahamas

Seahorse Density: Shane Gross/UPY 2018

“The pond I was in has the highest density of seahorses on Earth, but I’ve never seen three together like this before. I was camping on shore and had all night to shoot with the idea of backlighting a single seahorse, but finding three together was a real gift. I was super careful not to disturb them because they will swim away if they’ve had enough. I had my off-camera strobe and an underwater flashlight on a small tripod which I placed behind and below the trio. Then I waited for them to all turn in way that you could see their silhouette. The sun was setting and as it got darker the plankton really began to pile up. When the seahorses ate some of the plankton I could tell they were relaxed. We are still working on getting this special place protection so I cannot reveal the exact location,” said Gross.

The pond I was in has the highest density of seahorses on Earth, but I’ve never seen three together like this before

Winner, portrait category: Tanya Houppermans (USA)
A Sand Tiger Shark Surrounded By Tiny Bait Fish – Wreck of Caribsea, North Carolina, USA

A Sand Tiger Shark Surrounded by Tiny Bait Fish: Tanya Houppermans/UPY 2018

Houppermans said: “I always look forward to diving the wreck of the Caribsea and seeing the fierce-looking, but docile, sand tiger sharks that frequent the wreck. On this day as I descended to the wreck, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Millions of tiny fish, collectively known as ‘bait fish’, were grouped together in an enormous bait ball above the wreck, with dozens of sand tigers lazily meandering among the fish. As I slowly swam to the centre of the bait ball, I looked up and noticed a sand tiger a few feet above me. I swam on my back underneath her, trying not to startle her. As I moved with the shark through the water the bait fish parted way, giving me a clear shot of the underside of this beautiful shark, and also one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had yet as an underwater photographer.”

Behaviour category: Scott Gutsy Tuason (the Philippines)
In Hiding – Janao Bay, Batangas, the Philippines

In Hiding: Scott Gutsy Tuason/UPY 2018

“This shot was taken at a depth of 15 meters in 200-250m deep water. Towards the end of the ‘Blackwater’ dive, Edwin, one of our divemasters, called me over to show me this beautiful jellyfish, for me only to realise it had a juvenile trevally fish within it, and to my amazement, it was wedged between the bell and the tentacles! I had seen many ‘jack and jelly’ combos before but never like this,” said Tuason. “I shot around 20 frames and right on the last few frames it turned towards me to give me this very unusual portrait of a behaviour I had never seen before.”

Up and coming category: Jacob Degee (Poland)
The Hammer – Bimini, Bahamas

The Hammer: Jacob Degee/UPY 2018

Degee said: “It was the last day of the Enigma Team shark expedition to Bahamas. The last day and I was still missing a shot I came here to take. We went down. The day before there was a storm and we didn’t see anything. But they were back. Glorious, mighty, curious but shy four metre long ladies. The Great Hammerheads were slowly circulating around us. It was my last chance. The last opportunity to do what I had in my mind for months. “Stay calm, be patient” was constantly echoing in my mind. Sitting on a soft sandy bottom, facing against the sun I could have only waited. And there she was coming directly at me.”

Portrait category: Matt Curnock (Australia)
A Reflective Green Turtle Hatchling – James Cook University, Townsville, Australia

A Reflective Green Turtle Hatchling: Matt Curnock/UPY 2018

“This green turtle (Chelonia mydas) hatchling was photographed in the world’s first turtle health research facility, ‘The Caraplace’, at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia,” explained Curnock. “The facility caters for the needs of turtles under near-natural conditions and enables researchers to study turtle health up close, to better understand the management of diseases and the environmental conditions that affect turtle populations globally. Photographed under carefully controlled conditions, this healthy hatchling was playful and inquisitive, frequently approaching and nudging the camera, myself, and other objects in its temporary home. When relaxing at the surface, hatchlings will tuck their front flippers ‘behind their back’ – changing their silhouetted shape from below and potentially reducing the likelihood of being noticed by predators. It was a wonderful opportunity to observe and photograph such a beautiful creature this closely, while learning about the research and efforts to protect marine turtle populations facing global environmental change.”

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Portrait category: Nicholas More (UK)
Pretty In Pink – Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

Pretty in Pink: Nicholas More/UPY 2018

“The pristine reefs around the Jardines de la Reina on the south coast of Cuba are littered with colourful corals and sponges,” said More. “On this particular dive I had chosen to shoot macro and I slowly passed over the reef looking for all manner of small critters to use as potential subjects. I was lucky enough to come across this small juvenile grouper hiding within a pink sponge. Although a common fish on the reef, the pink sponge made a perfect background, so I opened my aperture to blur away the detail in the sponge and waited patiently for the fish to turn and look straight down the barrel. A few frames later, I had my shot.”

Wide angle category: Renee Capozzola (USA)
Blacktip Rendezvous – Moorea, French Polynesia

Blacktip Rendezvous: Renee Capozzola/UPY 2018

Capozzola said: “In French Polynesia, there is a healthy shark population thanks to their strong protection. It is my favourite place to photograph sharks as they often frequent shallow waters, which are perfect for split shots. It was my intention to go out at sunset and try to capture an over-under of the sharks. This shot was challenging as there was only a short period when the sun was at the horizon and it required multiple attempts over several days. A small aperture, large dome port, and flash were used for this image. Sadly, up to 100m sharks are lost every year, mainly due to overfishing and the high demand for shark fin soup. Sharks signify a balanced marine ecosystem. It is my hope that images such as this will capture peoples’ attention and help raise awareness of sharks and other marine animals throughout the world.”

In French Polynesia, there is a healthy shark population thanks to their strong protection

Wide angle category: Wendy Timmermans (the Netherlands)
Down the Stream – Nah Yah, Mexico

Down the Stream: Wendy Timmermans/UPY 2018

“Visiting the Mexican Cenotes was like a dream for me. This picture was taken with natural light and on one breath only, while freediving,” explained Timmermans. “Arriving in Mexico, our disappointment at finding ‘The Pit’ closed for freedivers instantly disappeared when we discovered the remote Cenote Nah Yah. A hypnotising bundle of sunbeams lightened up the crystal clear water into the depths, contrasting with the darkness. In this picture fellow freediver Guillaume Bihet is descending into the deep. Inside the Cenote the water was completely still and silent. But the small water movement resulting from the descent created a circular pattern on the surface, beautifully contrasting with the straightness of the beams underwater.”

Up and coming category: Clarissa Ace (Indonesia)
Ruby – Waiwawong, Adonara Island, Indonesia

Ruby: Clarissa Ace/UPY 2018

Ace said: “It was an early morning dive at Adonara Island, Indonesia. Shortly after descending, a coral banded shrimp near a patch of reef caught my attention. She was waving her long white antennae leisurely, confidently advertising her presence. I had seen a number of interesting mirrored images produced by senior photographers and wanted to create my own. My idea was to accentuate the contrast of the translucent body against the opaque ruby head. I slowly closed in down to her eye level and took my shot as my subject continues to wave, seemingly unbothered.”

View all of this year’s winning images here

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