The Winning Underwater Shots from the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

Prepare to be inspired, startled and filled with awe in equal measure – the Natural History Museum’s annual contest is back with another set of the very best nature photography including some stunning underwater shots.

Now in its 55th year, the 2019 competition will see one hundred images across 19 categories displayed at the Natural History Museum, London from 18 October 2019 to 31 May 2020. From luminous underwater scenes to close-up animal portraits, horrifying images of wildlife abuse to stunning, untouched wildernesses, the collection lives up to its usual high standard, covering a dramatic range of landscapes, geographical regions and photographic styles.

Here are underwater winners… 

The garden of eels by David Doubilet, USA, Winner 2019, Under Water

  David Doubilet Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019

The colony of garden eels was one of the largest Doubilet had ever seen, at least two thirds the size of a football field, stretching down a steep sandy slope off Dauin, in the Philippines. He rolled off the boat in the shallows and descended along the colony edge, deciding where to set up his kit. He had long awaited this chance, sketching out an ideal portrait of the colony back in his studio and designing an underwater remote system to realise his ambition. Garden eels are extremely shy, vanishing into their sandy burrows the moment they sense anything unfamiliar. Doubilet placed his camera housing just within the colony and hid behind the remnants of a shipwreck. From there he could trigger the system remotely. It was several hours before the eels dared to rise again to feed on the plankton that drifted by in the current. He gradually perfected the set-up, each time leaving an object where the camera had been so as not to surprise the eels when it reappeared. Several days later – now familiar with the eels’ rhythms and the path of the light – he began to get images he liked. When a small wrasse led a slender cornetfish through the gently swaying forms, he had his shot.

Nikon D3 + 17–35mm f2.8 lens at 19mm; 1/40 sec at f14; ISO 400; Seacam housing; aluminium plate + ballhead; remote trigger; Sea & Sea YS250 strobes (at half power)

Circle of life by Alex Mustard, UK, Highly commended 2019, Under Water

 Alex Mustard Wildlife Photographer of the Year

In the clear water of the Red Sea, a shoal of bigeye trevally circle 25 metres (80 feet) down at the edge of the reef. For the past 20 years Alex has travelled here, to Ras Mohammad – a national park at the tip of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula –to photograph the summer-spawning aggregations of reef fish. ‘The big lure is that I always see something new,’ he says. This time, it was the high numbers of bigeye trevally. Their circling behaviour is a dating exercise prior to pairing up, though it also deters predators. Spawning gatherings like this are easily fished out – but not here, as the national park is a no-fishing marine reserve. Using a lens with a 130-degree angle of view, Alex captured the shape of the shoal against the deep blue water below, the iridescent angled fish reflecting the light from the sun and his strobes.

Nikon D850 + 28–70mm f3.5–4.5 lens at 31mm +NauticamWide Angle Conversion Port; 1/60 sec at f11; ISO 500;Subalhousing; two Seacam Seaflash 150D strobes

Night glow by Cruz Erdmann, New Zealand Winner 2019, 11-14 years old, Young Grand Title Winner

 Cruz Erdmann Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019

As has become common for the competition, several images draw attention to the plight of the natural world, with both its power and fragility in full relief. With the uncertain future high on the agenda, it’s prescient that many of the photographers on display are at the very start of their careers. This year’s recipient of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year Grand Title was New Zealander, Cruz Erdmann. At just 14, his photograph of a bigfin reef squid marks the start of a very promising photographic journey.

Erdmann was on a night dive in the Lembeh Strait off North Sulawesi, Indonesia and found himself over an unpromising sand flat, in just three metres of water. It was here that he encountered the pair of bigfin reef squid. They were engaged in courtship, involving a glowing, fast‑changing communication of lines, spots and stripes of varying shades and colours. One immediately jetted away, but the other – probably the male – hovered just long enough for Erdmann to capture one instant of its glowing underwater show.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + 100mm f2.8 lens; 1/125 sec at f29; ISO 200; Ikelite DS161 strobe; Aquatica 5D Mk II Pro housing 

The ethereal drifter by Angel Fitor, Spain, Highly commended 2019, Under Water

 Angel Fitor Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019

A delicate, transparent comb jelly stretches out its vitreous sails as it rides the Mediterranean currents trawling for food. The species is commonly seen off the Spanish coast, but mostly with its ‘sails’ folded up or damaged by the action of waves, sediments or predatory fish. Angel came across this pristine individual on a dive 11 kilometres (7 miles) off the coast of Alicante, looking to see what had been swept in by an unusually large influx of surface water from the Atlantic. The prize was this transparent individual about 25 centimetres(10 inches) lobe to lobe –relatively large compared to the other100–150 known comb jelly species. Its apparent blue colour is a product of the reflection of light from above, and the iridescent combs along its cylindrical body are rows of fused cilia (two out of its eight being visible) that beat in synchrony, like tiny oars, scattering light as they rotate or steer the comb jelly. It catches tiny prey animals with its sails and also on its thread-like tentacles – one pair just visible at the bottom –using cells (colloblasts) that spurt out glue when touched. But it is also very sensitive to movement. ‘At the slightest vibration, it folded away its fragile sails,’ says Angel, who had to approach slowly and stealthily, finally succeeding in capturing the jelly’s exquisite form from above.

Nikon D800 + Sigma 20mm f1.8 lens; 1/250 sec at f16; ISO 50; Nexus housing; two Retra strobes

A swirl of rays, by Duncan Murrell, UK, Highly commended 2019, Under Water

 Duncan Murrell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019

A front-row seat for the courtship chase of spinetail devil rays was a rare treat. In more than a decade photographing in Honda Bay in the Philippine island province of Palawan, Duncan had occasionally seen these huge fish –up to 3.1 metres (10 feet) wide – but only once close up, when they were feeding on a krill swarm. But now, with only one thing on their minds, they swirled below as he snorkelled at the surface. One (left) – identified as a female by bite marks under her fins – was being pursued by the other two in a fast, swirling chase. Just for a second, the three converged in front of him, the soft, natural light lending a painterly quality that matched their grace. Once mated, the female would give birth to just one pup. Such a low birth rate, together with their late maturity and schooling behaviour, makes rays particularly vulnerable to overfishing, and a recent surge in demand for their use in traditional Chinese medicine is causing concerning population declines.

Canon EOS 6D + 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens; 1/200 sec at f7.1; ISO 500; InonX-2 housing

Nightrider by Wayne Jones, Australia, Highly commended 2019, Under Water


 Wayne Jones Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019

A juvenile paper nautilus, its transparent form just a centimetre (a third of an inch) long, rides atop a small jellyfish in Janao Bay near Anilao in the Philippines. As well as benefiting from a free ride and a top position for ambushing planktonic prey, the hitchhiker – a species of pelagic octopus – is probably gaining some protection from those predators that avoid the jellyfish’s stinging arms (here retracted). It may even be steering the jellyfish. This is a male. A female paper nautilus will grow to be at least 10 times bigger than a male and adopt a different ocean-going lifestyle. She secretes a paper-thin egg case – shaped a bit like the shell of an actual nautilus (a marine mollusc) – which doubles as a floating home as well as a brood chamber. A male, when mature, has a special long arm containing sperm, held in a sac under his huge eye. When he mates, the arm breaks off and enters the female to fertilise her eggs. Wayne encountered this male and his transport on a challenging night-time blackwater dive. This involved attracting plankton from the depths to a lighting rig – a 30-metre (100-foot) rope attached to a buoy, with lights set at intervals – and then photographing the larger creatures that arrive to feed on the plankton. Using searchlights, he observed a handful of small jellyfish being ridden by juvenile paper nautiluses, but it was the electric green of this one’s tentacles that grabbed his attention. Wayne spent no more than five minutes photographing ‘the magical pair’ before leaving them to disappear into the inky blackness.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV + Sigma 70mm f2.8 Macro Art lens;1/200 sec at f16; ISO 400; Nauticam housing; two Retra UWT strobes + two Scubalamp RD90 spotting lights + two Weefine Smart Focus 3000 lights + fourScubalampV6KPro video lights + two Weefine Solar Flare Max video lights + two DiveproG18 Plus video lights

Blackwater light trails by Songda Cai, China, Highly commended 2019, Under Water

 Songda Cai Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019 copy

On a night dive over deep water, off the coast of the Philippine island of Luzon,Songda’s lamp caught the glint of a juvenile African pompano. When fully grown, at up to 1.5 metres (nearly 5 feet), African pompano hunt in warm coastal water, but when they are juveniles, they are open-water drifters. At this small stage, its dorsal and anal fins sport long, trailing filaments that, as the fish moves with the currents, appear to imitate the stinging tentacles of jellyfish –a possible deterrent for at least some predators.Songda was fascinated by the fin rays and for a few minutes managed to glide alongside the 20-centimetre (8-inch) fish. Using a slow shutter speed and burst of strobe-light, he caught the blue-glinting motion-trails of a third of its extravagant rays before the pompano disappeared with a flick of its tail.

Nikon D850 + 60mm f2.8 lens; 0.5 sec at f29; ISO 160; Seacam housing; two Seacam Seaflash 150D strobes + Scubal ampstrobe

Jelly baby by Fabien Michenet, France, Highly commended 2019, Under Water

 Fabien Michenet Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019

A juvenile jackfish peers out from inside a small jellyfish off Tahiti in French Polynesia. With nowhere to hide in the open ocean, it has adopted the jelly as an overnight travelling shelter, slipping under the umbrella and possibly immune to the stinging tentacles, which deter potential predators. In hundreds of night dives, says Fabien, ‘I’ve never seen one without the other.’ It is not clear if a jelly derives any benefit or why the relationship breaks down when water acidifies. Diving in deep open water in darkness – here at 20 metres (65 feet) down – is Fabien’s speciality. Zooplankton migrate upf rom the deep under cover of darkness to feed on surface-dwelling phytoplankton (which need sunlight), and other predators stream after them. Drifting with the jelly and its rider, Fabien combined all the elements of his composition at exactly the right moment.

Nikon D810 + 60mm f2.8 lens; 1/320 sec at f22; ISO 64;Nauticamhousing; Inon Z-240 strobes

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London and opens to the public on 18 October. Tickets are free for members and £13.95 for adults, £8.25 for children, £10.95 for concessions and £29-£39.50 for families. Book online to guarantee entry.



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