Sub-ice whale skeleton shot brings UPY triumph

Alex Dawson / UPY 2024
Alex Dawson / UPY 2024

An image of a freediver examining the aftermath of modern whaling has seen Swedish diver Alex Dawson named Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 – beating 6,500 other entries from around the world.

Whale Bones was photographed in the toughest conditions, as a breath-hold diver descends below the Greenland ice-sheet to bear witness to the carcasses,” said judging panel chair Alex Mustard of the shot, which topped the Wide Angle category. 

“The composition invites us to consider our impact on the great creatures of this planet. Since the rise of humans, wild animals have declined by 85%. Today, just 4% of mammals are wildlife, the remaining 96% are humans and our livestock. Our way needs to change to find a balance with nature.”

Whales dominated the winning pictures this year, with Spanish photographer Rafael Fernandez Caballero winning two categories with a close-up of a grey whale’s eye and an action shot of a Bryde’s whale engulfing a bait-ball, both taken in Magdalena Bay, Baja California, Mexico. 

UPY logo

Lisa Stengel from the USA was named Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year for her image of a mahi mahi catching a sardine, also in Mexico.

“It is such an exciting time in underwater photography, because photographers are capturing such amazing new images by visiting new locations and using the latest cameras,” commented Mustard. “Until this year I’d hardly ever see a photo of a mahi mahi. Now Lisa has photographed one hunting, action that plays out in the blink of an eye.”

The Underwater Photographer of the Year (UPY) contest is an annual competition based in the UK, and Jenny Stock was named British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her Star Attraction, finding beauty in often overlooked brittlestars.

Meanwhile Portuguese photographer Nuno Sá was named Save Our Seas Foundation Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2024 with another whale shot, this one topside. His Saving Goliath showed beachgoers in Portugal trying to save a stranded sperm whale. 

Celebrating photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools, UPY is judged by Mustard and fellow experienced underwater photographers Peter Rowlands and Tobias Friedrich. The winners were announced at a London award ceremony that recognised the top three images in each of the 13 categories – below are the outright winners in each one:

Whale Bones / Alex Dawson

Swedish photographer Dawson captured the striking image shown above at Tasiilaq, eastern Greenland, where hunters bring their catches and share them out. From a stable population of more than 100,000 minke whales in the North Atlantic, they typically take fewer than a dozen. 

The whale is pulled up on the beach at high tide and many families gather to cut it up at low tide, consuming almost all of it. The skeleton is pulled back into the sea by the next high tide and marine invertebrates and fish pick the bones clean in the shallows.

“A very arresting image right from the start; for me this got bigger and better with every viewing,” said Peter Rowlands. “The diver’s suit and torch give it a ‘visiting alien’ feel, the composition flows effortlessly and takes your eye on the right journey to tell the story.”

Abstract Portrait Of A Potbelly Seahorse / Talia Greis

Talia Greis / UPY 2024
Talia Greis / UPY 2024

“I was drawn to this particular seahorse because it had especially distinguished markings around the eye, and the jaw-dropping colour palette made a striking contrast with the surrounding coral,” says Australian photographer Talia Greis, who was diving at Bare Island. 

“While seahorses are not rare on Sydney dive-sites, photographing one that can really stand out has always been a dream for me. I chose to open the aperture all the way down to f/3.5, which transformed the coral into an out-of-focus cloud-like effect, but also embraced the ominous green waters of Sydney summer diving. 

“To me the seahorse’s striking red eye and posture conveys power and strength, arising from the smoky underbelly of the ocean.” 

“We love how the photographer captured the character of both the secretive seahorse and the murky waters of Sydney in this picture with excellent use of light, a striking colour contrast and an inventive composition,” said Alex Mustard. “Beautiful.”

Chieftain Tanks / Martin Broen

Martin Broen / UPY 2024
Martin Broen / UPY 2024

US photographer Martin Broen had been competing in the first Aqaba underwater photo competition in Jordan. The underwater Military Museum site features war machines sunk in 15-28m, stationed along the reefs in tactical battle formation. 

“I wanted to capture the symmetry of the Chieftain tanks and strong presence of their 120mm guns, but the position where I could shoot that image with my fish-eye lens was occupied by a military ambulance,” he says. 

“Therefore, I experimented with a six-shot panorama from a point between the guns, which allowed me to recreate the virtual position further back, and achieve an elegant symmetry of the tanks, supported by the central focal point of my dive-buddy in the back.”

“This worked for me in a big way and still does very much,” said Rowlands. “The panorama choice – position and lens – emphasises the barrels and the twin-torch model could be a support helicopter. 

“The skill with panoramas is envisaging the end result. This powerful image works on several levels and was my clear favourite in this category and overall. In today’s troubled times, it is uplifting to see the apparatus of war put to peaceful use.”

The End Of A Baitball / Rafael Fernandez Caballero

Rafael Fernandez Caballero / UPY 24
Rafael Fernandez Caballero / UPY 24

The Spanish photographer was diving in the open Pacific waters of Magdalena Bay at La Paz at the end of 2023 at which time, he says, warmer El Niño water had encouraged more species than ever to join the hunt. 

“The main stars of the show, visiting Baja in perhaps larger numbers than ever, were the Bryde’s whales,” he says. “This photo shows the very moment of attack, with the whale’s ventral pleats wide open and filtering the prey from the water using their baleens after engulfing hundreds of kilograms of sardines in one bite – simply unforgettable.

“Absolutely jaw-dropping – pun intended,” commented Rowlands. “Perfectly posed and composed at the peak of the action with sunshine highlights, this image leapt out and we never tired of admiring it. Big subject, big image, big winner.”

Grey Whale Connection / Rafael Fernandez Caballero

Rafael Fernandez Caballero / UPY 24
Rafael Fernandez Caballero / UPY 24

Caballero says that encounters with grey whales in Pacific saltwater lagoons are extremely special, and this interaction also occurred in Magdalena Bay.

“Known for their friendly and curious nature, grey whales often approach boats, allowing observers to witness distinctive behaviours like spy-hopping,” he says. “This photo was taken from the boat, where the whale displayed a friendly gaze toward my camera, resembling a human look of curiosity and innocence. 

“During their migration from the Bering Sea to Baja California, these lagoons serve as crucial havens and winter maternity wards. With only around 1,300 grey whales left, responsible practices of ecotourism are key to protect these giants. 

“These special moments highlight the beauty and intelligence of the whales, creating enduring memories for both observers and, surely, the curious whales themselves.”

“Few people have ever gazed into the eye of a whale, but through this remarkable image many will be able to catch a glimpse of this intelligent soul,” commented Mustard. “A ground-breaking underwater portrait.”

Water Dancers / Jasmine Skye Smith

Jasmine Skye Smith / UPY 2024
Jasmine Skye Smith / UPY 2024

“This image was from a creative shoot from my first underwater portrait exhibition Underneath, held in August 2023,” says the Australian photographer, who took the picture in Perth. “I approached some girls from the synchronised swimming team to do a shoot and I booked the heated dive pool as it was our winter. 

“I was expecting to be using the 3m depth side but at the last minute they said we would be using the 5m end, which was amazing to play with in such a controlled environment – but also came with the challenge of a slanted edge down the bottom.” As a result it proved very difficult for the photographer to keep the black backdrop in place with her usual weights. 

“The two 6 x 3m backdrops only held in place for a few minutes before coming apart – and this was one of the magical captures in that short window.” 

“Black and white! A minimalist composition that invites us to compare and contrast the two halves of this intriguing frame,” said Mustard. “Fantastic teamwork between the photographer and the two elegant models.”

Nudi On Fire / Enrico Somogyi

Enrico Somogyi / UPY 2024
Enrico Somogyi / UPY 2024

This picture of a Hypsolodoris apolegma nudibranch with an emperor shrimp on its head was taken in Tulamben on Bali, Indonesia by the German photographer. To create the fire-like background he built a special tool. “It took me a long time to get it to work,” he says, but in the end he got the picture he was looking for.

“This shot seems to have it all,” commented Mustard. “A nudibranch on eggs, with a commensal shrimp on the nudibranch, all set against a golden explosion of light. Enrico once again shows that having a compact camera at the heart of his system is no limitation to producing stunning underwater images.” 

Window Of Opportunity / Lisa Stengel

Lisa Stengel / UPY 2024
Lisa Stengel / UPY 2024

US photographer Stengel had spent what she described as an exciting week looking for bait-balls in Pacific Mexico’s Magdalena Bay. “The season’s unique water temperatures kept the marlin farther from reach, but brought an interesting phenomenon: an unprecedented amount of mahi mahi,” she says.

“I chose not to wear a hood and noticed a distinct noise from the bait-ball every time the mahi would attempt to hit a target. If you listen closely, there’s an enormous amount of sound in the ocean, especially surrounding bait-balls. 

“I honed in on the sound of mahi attacks and followed this unmistakeable sound with my camera. This technique, coupled with serendipitous conditions, gave me the window of opportunity to capture this special moment.”

“What a moment!” said Mustard. “This is a phenomenal action photo, capturing high-speed hunting at the decisive moment. Definitely one of the most remarkable images in the contest and we love how Lisa used all her senses to capture this amazing photo.”

Divebomb / Kat Zhou

Kat Zhou / UPY 2024
Kat Zhou / UPY 2024

The US photographer captured this shot on a trip to dive with northern gannets in Shetland. “The experience of being amidst dive-bombing gannets is both chaotic and adrenaline-fuelled, and it was hard to choose where to aim my camera!

“I tried to photograph any bird that zoomed by, and I was pleasantly surprised when I later saw how this shot was able to depict the dynamic motion of the experience.”

“There is an amazing sense of purpose in the eyes of these gannets as they dive into the chilly waters in search of food,” said Mustard. “The judges also loved those bubble-rings that show the energy the birds are exerting during this underwater hunt.” 

Star Attraction / Jenny Stock

Jenny Stock / UPY 2024
Jenny Stock / UPY 2024

“Loch Leven is a Scottish dive-site near Oban that can be can easily be accessed via a lay-by on the A82,” says the UK photographer. “Once there, a walk down a steep leafy track will lead you into the ‘refreshing’ water. 

“As I descended into the dark green depths of the sea loch, on a dusk dive, I approached an area where my torch picked out the vivid colours of a living carpet of thousands of brittlestars.

“Captivated by the variety of hues and patterns each star took, I felt this was an incredible encounter with a species I’d never seen before. I was happily snapping away when I spotted this purple sea urchin and I got really excited. 

“A dominant star next to this graphic invertebrate created a beautifully balanced pair, perfectly surrounded by an entanglement of the background brittlestars.”

“This is a celebratory British image on many levels – a full-frame carpet of vibrant, healthy marine life with complementary colours, well composed and very original,” said Rowlands. “Subtlety is a gamble in competitions but this one paid off and appealed to all the judges alike.”

Bottled Blenny / Kirsty Andrews

Kirsty Andrews / UPY 2024
Kirsty Andrews / UPY 2024

“Butterfly blennies naturally choose abandoned whelk shells as their home but it seems they can get creative,” says Andrews, who took her winning photo in Cornwall. “On the seabed of the river Fal, among beautiful pink maerl, many have chosen to use discarded glass bottles as a shelter. Waste not, want not.”

“Characterful and cute, this rare blenny is perfectly framed in its new home inside a glass bottle, with amazing eye contact that just grabs our attention,” said Mustard.

Catshark In Bootlace / Jon Bunker

Jon Bunker / UPY 2024
Jon Bunker / UPY 2024

“The bootlace weed can sometimes completely blanket the pebbles overlooking the reef at Chesil Cove in the summer,” says Bunker of his Dorset shot. “Scores of catshark, cuttles, young conger and other night-time predators patrol this seasonal ‘jungle’ slope, happy to snack on whatever comes their way. 

“This sleepy catshark was, as you can see, unsure what to make of me, poking its head tentatively through the weed to establish if I was either threat or food. While it was considering this, I managed to play around with my strobes a little in an attempt to diffuse some of the light through the tresses of early summer algae. 

“My subject let me to take three shots before swimming off into the night.”

Rowlands considered the photograph “a delightfully observed and well-lit image of an iconic British subject more often photographed full-bodied in the open but this has a much stronger photographic appeal and I would have recaptioned it ‘Food or Foe’. The back-story confirms that it soon decided: Foe.”

Saving Goliath / Nuno Sá

Nuno Sá / UPY 2024
Nuno Sá / UPY 2024

The Portuguese photographer captured this image at Fonte da Telha in his home country. “The golden beaches of Costa da Caparica, just across the river from Lisbon, were packed with sun-seekers on this sunny day, and then something unusual caught their attention on the horizon,” he says.

“A massive sperm whale seemed to be struggling to swim as it slowly moved towards the coast. Soon its giant wounded body was passing by surfers and swimmers and reaching the shallow waters of the beach. 

“But suddenly dozens of sun-seekers start running towards the whale. Together they push and chant, trying to help the giant back into the sea, as it slowly slaps its tail back and forth, and breathes heavily. 

“Several hours later the whale takes its last breath, its body crushed by gravity as it lays on the sand. An estimated 20,000 whales are killed every year, and many more injured, after being struck by ships – and few people even realise that it happens.”

Rowlands commented: “This isn’t supposed to be an easy category to view but this has a pleasing element visually, which created a feeling of confidence until I read the caption and found that all that hope and all that effort, from both sides, came to nought. It’s sad, so sad but it works on several levels.”

See all the Underwater Photographer of the Year top three category winners and judges’ comments at the UPY 24 website. You can also download the complete 2024 Yearbook.

Also on Divernet: UPY celebrates 10 years of photo competition, Pink dolphin smile for Underwater Photographer of the Year, Whale shark triumph at UPY 2022, Sharks’ Skylight brings UPY victory

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