An eye-catching photo of a pink river dolphin breaching the surface of the River Amazon sees Kat Zhou from the United States named Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
Kat Zhou’s photograph ‘Boto Encantado’ triumphed over 6,000 underwater pictures entered by underwater photographers from 72 countries.
The image perfectly frames this endangered species, whose numbers are falling year on year, by photographing it simultaneously above and below the surface, at sunset. “There’s a legend among locals that river dolphins, or ‘botos’, can transform into handsome men known as ‘boto encantado’ to seduce women,” she said. “Though I did not witness the transformation, I was enchanted by these beautiful mammals in a different way. After seeing how botos would sometimes bring their beaks above water, I knew I want a split shot at sunset. Though the water was so dark that I was shooting blind, this dolphin gave me a perfect pose and smile!
“As more people have settled the Amazon, river dolphins began living in closer proximity to human populations, even making use of food scraps,” continued Zhou. “Many river dolphins have also been killed for use as fish bait, drowned in gill nets or poisoned by mercury pollution. I fear that one day botos will truly become no more than mythical creatures.”
Chair of the competition judges, Alex Mustard, commented: “At first glance simple, then simply perfect. In dark, tannic waters, Kat has created a striking composition capturing this rarely photographed and endangered species at the perfect moment. This is by far the best image we've ever seen of this species, whose numbers are declining at an alarming rate and whose IUCN’s Red List status was worryingly increased to Endangered in 2019.”
“It is appropriate that the Amazon, as the world’s mightiest river, has produced our overall winner,” commented judge Mustard. “The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest aims to celebrate underwater photography in all its diversity and we are delighted that this year’s awarded images come from the poles to the tropics, from all corners of the ocean, and from renowned freshwater bodies like the river Amazon and Lake Baikal. We even have winners taken in swimming pools.”
British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
Ollie Clarke, an Englishman now living in Australia, was named as British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023 for his image ‘The Swarm’ showing a whaleshark, the largest fish in the world, hidden within a bait ball of smaller fish. Clarke photographed this scene in Ningaloo, Western Australia.
Clarke said: “Whalesharks on the Ningaloo Reef are often accompanied by small groups of fish. The fish use the giant shark as a floating shelter. However, this bait-ball was huge with a lot more fish than usual and much denser, so I was really excited to photograph it.”
Competition judge Mustard commented “Whalesharks are sometimes mis-labelled as plankton feeders, but they are also active predators of schools of small fish. To me, Ollie’s stunning image is perfectly timed as the shark pounces, switching from benign escort to hunter, mouth gulping down its prey.”
Save Our Seas Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023
Spanish photographer Alvaro Herrero was named ‘Save Our Seas Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023, with his photo ‘Hopeless’, taken in Mexico. Herrero said: “A humpback whale dies a slow, painful and agonising death after having its tail entangled in ropes and buoys, rending its tail completely useless – a reflection of how our oceans and plant are suffering, the product of man's selfishness and lack of responsibility. Taking this photograph was the saddest moment I've experienced in the ocean, especially because I have spent so much time with humpbacks underwater, experiencing eye contact, interactions, and seeing how they are such sentient and intelligent beings. But I am, at least, happy that I could capture this moment and can now share it with the world and hopefully drive some real changes.”
Competition judge Tobias Friedrich commented: “What a message this image delivers. I can't imagine the sadness when this poor whale was discovered, but by making a few images, Alvaro will help raise awareness and should save many whales in the future.”
J Gregory Sherman from the United States won the Wide Angle category with Fade, which was taken at Stingray City in the Cayman Islands.
Sherman said: “My dive partner and I chartered a boat to arrive at Stingray City on Grand Cayman before dawn so as to capture the morning light and undisturbed sand ripples. Just as the sun broke the horizon, a line of southern stingrays headed straight for me and I captured this image as they glided across the sand. Using a large dome port allowed me to create a split image showing the intensely colourful dawn sky contrasted against the nearly monochromatic stingrays and sand beneath the surface chop.
Judge Peter Rowland commented: “The planning and the early start were rewarded by perfect stingray behaviour topped with the dynamic split shot of a dramatic sky. This image, quite rightly, went right to the wire as the possible overall winner. A week after the judging, I loved looking at this image again.”
Kuwaiti Suliman Alatiqi took the title in the Portrait category for his shot The Trunk, which was taken off Phuket in Thailand.
Alatiqi said: “The elephant's trunk is one of the most-distinctive anatomical features in the natural world and this photo aims to emphasize it. Luckily, he was curious about my camera and was happy to feel it out which gave me the opportunity to capture this perspective despite otherwise bad conditions for an over-under photo (choppy water and poor visibility). In my first attempts, the nostrils were not fully lit because of how close they were to the lens (which was necessary for the intended photographic effect). So I returned at a specific time window when I thought the sun’s angle would be optimal and managed to fully light the nostrils. This added a lot more detail to the key part of the image without which the photo would not be as effective.”
Judge Alex Mustard said: “There is irresistible charisma in this crowd-pleasing composition. In this joyous frame, a domesticated Indian elephant cool off in the sea, and curiously dips its trunk beneath the surface to investigate Suliman’s underwater camera.”
Yury Ivanov from Indonesia won the Behaviour category with his shot ‘Make Love Not War’, which was taken in Tulamben, Bali.
Ivanov explained: “A couple of coconut octopuses ‘making love’ (mating). I knew that I can find this species of octopus at one of the dive sites near Tulamben village (Bali, Indonesia) and they are active only at night time in that place. I dived there only after 7pm hoping to photograph something unique – their mating. I did more than 30 night dives at the dive site and finally I got lucky. The photo shows the end of their love.”
Judge Tobias Friedrich said: “An absolute amazing moment photographed perfectly. This image underlines that patience and knowledge an animal will result in a winning shot. It was immediately clear to all judges that this image will go very far in the competition when we saw it the first time. Very well done and executed.”
Brett Eldridge from the United States won the Wrecks category with ‘Engine with a Saddle’, taken off Point Loma, California.
Eldridge said: “We were out scanning targets in June when we saw a very small, but promising sonar blip 230 feet deep. I geared up and jumped in hoping for something special. After some searching, my heart started racing when I first saw fish then the propeller of an almost completely intact, single-engine World War Two airplane! It turned out to be a F8F-1 Bearcat, a rare aircraft that Neil Armstrong famously once said was his favourite and has been described as ‘An Engine With a Saddle’. Alone on the first dive with limited bottom time, I took enough photos to build a ‘draft’ model and identify the wreck. Needing a better photogrammetry model for the UPY contest and with deadlines quickly approaching, I booked 19 December and crossed my fingers. We fortunately had epic conditions and I got the photos I needed. It was my last dive of 2022.”
Judge Alex Mustard commented: “Underwater photogrammetry, that creates a three-dimensional panorama of the subject is a recent technique in underwater photography that has proved incredibly useful for studying reefs and wrecks. Allowing academics to study in detail measure and visualised the underwater world, without going down there. Yet Brett’s image also reveals how eye-catching these images can be, rewriting the rules of wreck photography underwater, and providing the world with its first view of this crashed World War Two fighter.”
Black and White
Scuba Diver’s Senior Travel Editor Don Silcock took the win in the Black and White category with ‘El Blanco – the White One’, which was taken off Peninsula Valdes, Argentina.
Silcock said: “The image was taken on the last morning of a five-day trip to Peninsula Valdés in Argentina, in August 2022, under a special permit to enter the water with the southern right whales that gather there between June and December each year. The mother, who can be seen in the background, accepted our presence and allowed the calf to interact with us. It was very playful but careful not to hit us with its tail and seemed to be really enjoying it all – almost as much as we were!
“White calves are very rare and referred to locally as ‘El Blanco’ or ‘the white one’!
“Peninsula Valdés is an incredibly important safe haven and breeding ground for the southern right whales of the southern Atlantic and Argentina has done an excellent job of managing it. It was, without doubt, my best ever underwater experience!”
Judge Tobias Friedrich commented: “This is an absolutely amazing example of how black and white images should be used. I can't imagine it done much better actually – also the encounter must have been truly stunning! Well-deserved winner of this category!”
The Macro win went to Canadian Shane Goss, with his image ‘Unsung’, taken off Vancouver Island in Canada.
Goss said: “Walking along a rocky shoreline we would peer under rocks using a probe lens and my camera's LCD screen to check for plainfin midshipman nests. Once found I would lay on top of the barnacle-covered rocks, cutting my elbows, trying to compose images of fish most people have never heard of despite having one of the most interesting lifecycles of any animal.
“Plainfin midshipman are deep water fish that travel to the intertidal zone to spawn. The males sing to attract females and she will lay as many eggs as his singing deserves before moving on to the next singer. Now, the male has a chance to fertilize the eggs, but only if he is not beaten to the punch by a sneaker male who looks like a female. The singer male will then guard the nest never knowing the kids may not be his. Drama!”
Judge Alex Mustard commented: “A shoal of embryonic fish that are still attached both to the seabed and their egg sacs. A secret image revealing another incredible insight into life in the sea. But the photo isn't all about natural history, it is made by personality captured in the primary tiddler.”
The Compact category was won by German Enrico Somogyi, with his ‘Klunzinger’s Wrasse in Motion’, taken off Marsa Alam in Egypt.
Somogyi said: “When I was snorkelling in Marsa Alam I saw countless Klunzinger's wrasses. One of them was particularly curious and very interested in my lens. I was able to take some good classic wide-angle pictures. After a while I figured it would be a good idea to try a long exposure. So I set my camera to the smallest aperture f11, the ISO value to 64 and the exposure time to 1/13s. For this picture, I moved the camera forward a bit while the shutter was released. This created the zoom effect in the lower part of the image. I was very happy with the result.”
Judge Peter Rowlands commented: “An intelligent image playing to the camera’s strengths and producing an end result that most bigger cameras would be proud of.”
British Waters Macro
Kirsty Andrews took the title in British Waters Macro with ‘Egg Eaters’, taken off the Shetlands.
Andrews said: “I have long admired others’ pictures of nudibranchs feeding on the egg coils of other nudibranch species across the world. I’d also seen this nudibranch species, Favorinus branchialis, before, and I knew that it fed in this way, but never seen it in action until recently. I was therefore thrilled to find three large specimens feeding on a big coil of eggs in Shetland, Scotland. The eggs were several inches across, in a wide spiral, so the challenge was to isolate an appealing composition of eggs and nudibranchs.”
Judge Tobias Friedrich said: “What a nice and clean composition of these nudibranchs. From the beginning this image caught my intention and I knew it was more than likely to win this category. It's not only a macro shot, but also a portrait and has additionally a element of behaviour. What can you wish more for? Very well done and congratulations!”
British Waters Wide Angle
Theo Vickers won the British Waters Wide Angle category with ‘An Island’s Wild Seas’, taken in the Needles Marine Conservation Zone off the Isle of Wight.
Vickers said: “Sunlight beats down through a marine jungle of Himanthalia algae on the chalk reefs of the Needles Marine Conservation Zone. The purple-tipped tentacles of snakelocks anemones (Anemonia viridis) rising up from the forest floor. Striking rock formations, the Needles on the Isle of Wight attracts close to 500,000 visitors annually. Yet, like many of Britain’s marine habitats the beauty and biodiversity of the island’s chalk reefs that lie below, from nudibranchs and rays to cuttlefish and cuckoo wrasse, are largely unknown to most.
“Exploring the shallower reefs on a summer evening, my mission was to capture a wide-angle image that documented this stunning local habitat, combining both the towering forests above and the anemones that rule the chalk seabed below. After several unsatisfying attempts I stumbled upon this gully packed with snakelocks, and sinking into the forest beneath, found the composition I had been seeking.”
Judge Tobias Friedrich commented: “What a stunning image! This magical and mystic atmosphere is just blasting. A very good example on what you can achieve even with a small camera and an artistic and good eye! The blurry foreground even gives you the impression that you are in a small, tiny world, looking up into the weed. Very well done! The only little, little downside is the sunburst, which is a bit too bright.”
British Waters Living Together
Dan Bolt won the British Waters Living Together category with ‘Pipe Reef’, taken in Loch Fyne in western Scotland.
Bolt said: “We were initially interested in this site in Loch Fyne for the fields of firework anemones, but of equal interest was an old pipe that had this patterned concrete protective covering along its length. This shallow artificial reef was home to many different species, including some large langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus) who were seemingly unperturbed by my presence.”
Judge Alex Mustard commented: “A seabed structure provides the perfect habitat for marine life, and a great recreational dive site for people. The composition balances perfectly the langoustine with the diver, as it scuttles across the intriguing structure.”
British Waters Compact
Tony Reed was the winner in the British Waters Compact category, with his shot ‘Crack Rock Blenny’, taken in Babbacombe on the South Coast.
Reed explained: “I had been going back to this spot on Crack Rock to capture the variable blenny for several weeks. He was caring over his eggs inside the crevice so I was trying to capture the point when the eggs were hatching. Being such an inquisitive little chap, he was always moving around getting closer to the camera until he got to this point where I took a few shots. I didn't stay too long as I didn't want to have any negative or detrimental affects on the parenting behaviour. It has been great to see an increase in the variable blenny around Torbay over the past couple of years.”
Judge Alex Mustard commented: “Variable blennies are relative newcomers to our shores and I cannot believe one has ever been captured as perfectly as this before. What a portrait.”
About Underwater Photographer of the Year
Underwater Photographer of the Year is an annual competition, based in the UK, that celebrates photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools. British photographer Phil Smith was the first underwater Photographer of the Year, named in 1965. Today’s competition attracts entries from all around the world, has 13 categories, testing photographers with themes such as Macro, Wide Angle, Behaviour and Wreck photography, as well as four categories for photos taken specifically in British waters. This year’s judges were experienced underwater photographers Peter Rowlands, Tobias Friedrich and Dr Alexander Mustard MBE.
GO Diving Show
The winners and runner's up will be displayed in all their glory at the GO Diving Show at the NAEC Stoneleigh from 4-5 March, and Dr Alex Mustard MBE will be on the Main Stage from 3.30pm presenting the winners and showcasing the images on the big screen.