In photographs: the beauty of our oceans

From ‘dancing’ octopuses to hospitable clownfish, the winning images from this year’s Underwater Photographer of the Year awards celebrate the breadth and beauty of aquatic ecosystems

After receiving 4,500 entries from photographers in 67 countries, the judges of the Underwater Photographer of the Year awards picked winners in 10 categories. The annual competition celebrates photography from beneath the surface of the sea, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools.

With manmade chemicals now being detected in even the deepest parts of our oceans, rising sea temperatures and acidification posing real threats to aquatic life, the photos capture some of the habitats and animals that are at stake.

The awards were first held in 1965. Three categories recognise photographs taken specifically in British waters.

French photographer Gabriel Barathieu was named underwater photographer of the year with his Dancing Octopus photo – a shot capturing a “balletic and malevolent” hunter on the move. Other winning entries included a psychedelic jellyfish in bloom to a solitary shark “in a big, blue, lonely world”.

“I have been captivated not only by the winning images but also by the stories behind how those images were achieved,” said Peter Rowlands, chairman of this year’s jury. “The conception, the planning and the physical effort to achieve a successful result; it is those efforts that we, as judges, pay our respects to.”


Diving deep: the winning entries

Underwater photographer of the year: Gabriel Barathieu (France)
Dancing Octopus – Mayotte, Indian Ocean

Dancing Octopus: Gabriel Barathieu/UPY 2017

“I had to wait for a low spring tide when the water was just 30cm deep so that the octopus would fill the water column,” Barathieu said. “I got as close as possible with a wide-angle lens to create this image, which makes the octopus look huge.”

British underwater photographer of the year: Nick Blake (Ireland)
Out of the Blue – Chac Mool Cenote sinkhole, Mexico

Out of the Blue: Nick Drake/UPY 2017

“Underwater photographers can move freely in three dimensions, so I adjusted my position in the water to capture the symmetrical framing of the light beams by the rocks,” said Blake.

Up and coming underwater photographer of the year: Horacio Martinez (Argentina)
Oceanic in the Sky – Egypt

Oceanic in the Sky: Horacio Martinez

Martinez said: “I noticed this oceanic whitetip shark patrolling in the distance and exposed for the sun beams. I was pleased by the dreamlike effect. Oceanic [animals] are great subjects for close-ups as they are anything but shy. Yet, I wanted to capture their apparent loneliness in the big blue.”

Oceanic animals are great subjects for close-ups as they are anything but shy

Most promising British underwater photographer: Nicholai Georgiou (UK)
Orca Pod – Norway

Orca Pod: Nicholai Georgiou/UPY 2017

“The days are short and the water is barely above freezing, but with orca around, the cold is quickly forgotten,” said Georgiou. “The light was beautiful as the sun skimmed the horizon, but the water was dark and foreboding. These orca swam by, nice and close. It was a moment which will be hard to top.”

Winner, wide angle category: Ron Watkins (USA)
One in a Million – Out of Valdez, Alaska

One in a Million: Ron Watkins/UPY 2017

“The dense bloom of jellyfish ranged in depth from two metres to more than 20 metres and we spent a lot of time in the water with them,” said Watkins. “It was surreal and more dense than anything I had ever experienced including Jellyfish Lake in Palau. I came across this lion’s mane jellyfish rising from the bloom towards the surface and positioned myself directly over it to capture this image.”

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Winner, macro category: So Yat Wai (Hong Kong)
Prey? – Anilao, Philippines

Prey?: So Yat Wai/UPY 2017

“This photo was shot during a blackwater dive in Anilao,” explained Wai. “Even though the larvae mantis shrimp [left] is very small, it is still a predator which uses its raptorial appendages to hunt. Has it spotted the prey and is it ready to pounce?”

Winner, wrecks category: (Hungary)
The Wreck of the Louilla at Sunset – Gordon Reef, Straits of Tiran, Egypt

The Wreck of the Louilla at Sunset: Csaba Tökölyi/UPY 2017

“This is the wreck of the Louilla resting on top of Gordon Reef in the Straits of Tiran on the edge of the Sinai,” said Tökölyi. “Wrecks become part of the ecosystem in no time. Soft corals develop very soon and they can become a shelter for schools of juvenile fish. In a few decades, the reef should be free again from the remains of this once-huge freighter.”

Winner, behaviour category: Qing Lin (Canada)
Your Home and My Home – Lembeh, Indonesia

Your Home and My Home: Qing Lin/UPY 2017

“Clown anemonefish and anemones enjoy a symbiotic relationship,” said Lin. “The parasitic isopods like to hang out in the mouths of anemonefish. It took me six dives, patience and luck to capture the exact moment when all three fish opened their mouths to reveal their guests. Finally, on the last dive of the last day, I succeeded.”

It took me six dives, patience and luck to capture the exact moment

Winner, compact category: Jenny Stromvoll (Mozambique)
I’ve Got My Eye on You! – Frekkie, Mozambique

I’ve Got My Eye on You!: Qing Lin/UPY 2017

“The trick was to get close enough without the goby moving away,” said Stromvoll. “I was fortunate enough to find a very forgiving goby who allowed me into his private space. I knew I had to get down low and shoot up to include the surface of the water. I shot this scene many times before getting the image I was after.”

Commended entries

Portrait category: Francis Pérez (Spain)
Sea Lion Playing With Starfish – Los Islotes, Mexico

Sea Lion Playing With Starfish: Francis Pérez/UPY 2017

“In Los Islotes there is one of the most important sea lion kindergartens in Mexico. I went there looking for pictures of sea lions eating on the big sardine banks,” said Pérez. “There were no sardines, but I found many interesting things, such as a juvenile sea lion playing with starfish. I spent about four hours in the water, until finally getting closer and little by little and with respect, I was able to capture this photo.”

British waters wide angle category: Cy Sullivan (UK)
Lodberry Jellyfish – Lerwick Harbour, Shetland

Lodberry Jellyfish: Cy Sullivan/UPY 2017

“Living in Shetland I am surrounded by fantastic dive locations,” said Sullivan. “I regularly dive near Lerwick’s lodberries, taking in the fascinating history and marine life. The lodberries are a terrace of late 18th century buildings used in the shipping trade. After many failed attempts and much patience this blue jellyfish [Cyanea lamarckii] slowly propelled itself into my frame. I love taking these kinds of shots as it gives people an insight into the beautiful aquatic world that surrounds us.”

I really love taking these kinds of shots – it gives people an insight into the beautiful aquatic world that surrounds us

British waters macro category: Trevor Rees (UK)
Purple Baubles in a Sea of Yellow – HMS Scylla wreck, Plymouth

Purple Baubles in a Sea of Yellow: Trevor Rees/UPY 2017

“This close-up shot of jewel anemones [Corynactis viridis] was taken on a popular wreck dive near Plymouth on England’s south coast,” said Rees. “The HMS Scylla wreck was scuttled [deliberately sunk] only 13 years ago but is now well encrusted with marine life. Numerous, large, tightly packed jewel anemones can now be found on the top of the wreck.”

British waters compact category: Ian Wade (UK)
Split-level Tadpoles – Priddy Pools, Somerset

Split-level Tadpoles: Ian Wade/UPY 2017

“Photographing these toad tadpoles proved really tricky,” said Wade. “I wanted to show life above and below the water level on a compact camera. It took a lot of near misses but finally, I managed to capture this image showing a split level environment. I head to this location every year to photograph the tadpoles.”

View all of this year’s winning images here

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