A scuba diver has emerged as overall winner of one of the world’s most prestigious wildlife photography competitions. French underwater photographer and marine biologist Laurent Ballesta won the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Grand Title with his image Creation, showing camouflage grouper exiting their milky cloud of eggs and sperm in Fakarava, French Polynesia.
Ballesta’s photograph was selected from more than 50,000 entries from 95 countries by the judges of the competition, developed and produced by London’s Natural History Museum (NHM). The online awards ceremony for this, the 57th competition, was held yesterday (12 October).
Each entry was judged anonymously by a panel of experts for originality, narrative, technical excellence and ethical practice.
For five years Ballesta and his team returned around July’s full moon, diving day and night to catch a spawning event that can involve up to 20,000 fish gathered in a narrow channel between ocean and lagoon. After dark they were joined by hundreds of grey reef sharks hunting the grouper, which are IUCN-classified as Vulnerable but protected within the biosphere reserve.
Ballesta used a Nikon D5 camera with 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, with Seacam housing and strobes, at 17mm, 1/200th at f/11, ISO 1600.
“The image works on so many levels,” commented judging-panel chair Rosamund Kidman Cox. “It is surprising, energetic and intriguing and has an otherworldly beauty. It also captures a magical moment – a truly explosive creation of life – leaving the tail-end of the exodus of eggs hanging for a moment like a symbolic question mark.”
“This year’s Grand Title winner reveals a hidden underwater world, a fleeting moment of fascinating animal behaviour that very few have witnessed,” added NHM Director Dr Doug Gurr.
“In what could be a pivotal year for the planet, with vital discussions taking place at COP15 and COP26, Laurent Ballesta’s Creation is a compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not address humanity’s impact on our planet. The protection provided to this endangered species by the biosphere reserve highlights the positive difference we can make.”
Creation was one of 19 category winners, with three new categories including “Oceans – The Bigger Picture”, and underwater photography had a particularly rewarding year.
UK photographer Alex Mustard was among the category winners in the Natural Artistry section with “Bedazzled”, his hard-won picture of a juvenile ghost pipefish in a featherstar.
Another past DIVER magazine contributor, Justin Gilligan from Australia, topped the Plants & Fungi category with “Rich Reflections”, depicting a marine ranger among seaweed at Lord Howe Island on the world’s southernmost tropical reef.