Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2021: The Stunning Winning Photos
An image of “explosive sex” in the deep sea has earned French underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta the prestigious title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
The enigmatic image, Creation, (below) captures a group of camouflage groupers exiting their milky cloud of eggs and sperm taken at Fakarava Atoll in the Pacific’s French Polynesia.
Selected from more than 50,000 entries from 95 countries, the winners of the 58th Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition were revealed this week at an online awards ceremony.
Celebrating a ‘fleeting moment’
“This year’s Grand Title winner reveals a hidden underwater world, a fleeting moment of fascinating animal behaviour that very few have witnessed,” explained Dr. Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum.
“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,” he said. “The protection provided to this endangered species by the biosphere reserve highlights the positive difference we can make.”
The winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which was developed and is produced by the Natural History Museum in London, were selected from 19 category winners that, according to the organizers, celebrate the captivating beauty of our natural world with rich habitats, enthralling animal behaviour and extraordinary species.”
Each entry was judged anonymously by a panel of experts for its originality, narrative, technical excellence and ethical practice.
Displayed alongside insights from Natural History Museum scientists and experts, the 100 winning images will be showcased in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the museum starting October 15.
After it closes, the exhibition will tour Great Britain before traveling to venues in the U.S., Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark and Germany, among others.
The 59th Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition will open for entries from photographers of all ages, nationalities, and levels on October 18, 2021.
The 2021 Wild Photographer of the Year
Each year over five years, the photographer and his team returned to this lagoon, diving day and night to ensure they wouldn’t miss the annual spawning that takes place around the full moon in July, when as many as 20,000 fish gather in Fakarava, French Polynesia, in a narrow southern channel linking the lagoon with the ocean.
They were joined after dark by reef sharks hunting the fish.
Overfishing threatens this vulnerable species, but here the fish are protected within a special biosphere reserve.
11 - 14 Years Category Winner
As light faded at the end of a warm May afternoon, Andrés’s attention was drawn to a warbler flitting from flower to flower, singing its heart out.
From his hide in his father’s car, Andrés photographed the singer, “the king of its territory.” Melodious warblers are one of more than 400 species of songbird known as Old World warblers, each with a distinctive song.
The song of a melodious warbler is a pleasant babbling that lacks the mimicked sounds sometimes made by other warblers.
Urban Wildlife Winner
Imagine looking under your bed — and finding second-most-venomous spider in the world, which is also one of the world’s largest true spiders — sitting there guarding a thousand baby spiders that hatched from an egg sac.
The mere thought of it would freak out many people. And that’s exactly the scene the photographer found while visiting a biological station in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
After noticing tiny spiders all over his bedroom, Gil looked under his bed to find it guarding its brood. Before safely relocating it outdoors, he photographed the human-hand-sized Brazilian wandering spider using forced perspective to make it appear even larger.
Brazilian wandering spiders roam forest floors at night in search of prey such as frogs and cockroaches. They’re widely abundant in the area and often dwell in man-made habitats.
“I found them resting in bus stops, storage areas, and in people’s homes,” Wizen said.
Their toxic venom can be deadly to mammals, including humans, but also has medicinal applications.
Spiders of the genus Phoneutria suffer from a bad reputation due to the high potency of their venom but also for their defensiveness. A threatened spider gives an initial warning by rearing up on its hind legs and holding its forelegs up in the air, revealing aposematic coloration of black and yellow bands.
It also exposes its red fangs. If the provocation persists, it will not hesitate to strike with a bite.
The result is that it’s often killed on sight. However, these animals play an important role in the ecosystem and they never attack humans without provocation.
“Needless to say, because this medically significant spider was under my bed I safely relocated it outside my room” said Wizen. “The harmless spider babies were left untouched.”
While searching for arthropods in a forest near his home in southern Ontario, Canada, the photographer discovered a “fishing spider” under a slab of tree bark.
Fishing spiders are common in wetlands where they feed on small aquatic animals, but they’re also common in temperate forests.
The spider was in the process of stretching out silk from its spinnerets to weave into its egg sac. “I noticed it was spinning around in circles while also spinning webs, slowly constructing a silken disk that later turned into a hollow dish shape,” Wizen recalled. “The action of the spinnerets reminded me of the movement of human fingers when weaving.”
These spiders are common in wetlands and temperate forests of eastern North America. More than 750 eggs have been recorded in a single sac.
Fishing spiders carry their egg sacs with them until the eggs hatch and the spiderlings disperse.
“After about an hour, the spider completed most of the sac and was getting ready to lay its eggs inside it, at which point I left the animal to its business,” said Wizen. “Spiders at the crucial stage of egg laying become stressed at the smallest disturbance and this can damage the embryos developing in the fresh eggs.”
15- 17 Years Winner
Heikke wanted to convey a sense of scale in his photograph of the Siberian jay, tiny among the old-growth spruce-dominated forest. He used pieces of cheese to get the jays accustomed to his remotely controlled camera.
Siberian jays use old trees as larders. Their sticky saliva helps them glue food such as seeds, berries, small rodents and insects high up in the holes and crevices of the bark and among hanging lichens.
The photographer trekked for four hours to meet Kibande, a near-40-year-old mountain gorilla.
“The more we climbed, the hotter and more humid it got,” he recalled. As cooling rain began to fall, Kibande remained in the open, seeming to enjoy the shower.
Mountain gorillas are a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, and are found at altitudes above 1,400 meters in two isolated populations: at the Virunga volcanoes and in Bwindi, southwestern Uganda.
These gorillas are endangered due to habitat loss, disease, poaching and habitat disruption caused by human activity.
Zoo visitors watch a young elephant perform under water. Although this performance was promoted as educational and as exercise for the elephants, the photographer was disturbed by this scene.
Organizations concerned with the welfare of captive elephants view performances like these as exploitative because they encourage unnatural behaviour.
Elephant tourism has increased across Asia. In Thailand there are now more elephants in captivity than in the wild.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused international tourism to collapse, leading to elephant sanctuaries becoming overwhelmed with animals that can no longer be looked after by their owners.
A raven courtship display was captured in midwinter, the start of the ravens’ breeding season.
Kalyn lay on the frozen ground using the muted light to capture the detail of the ravens’ iridescent plumage against the contrasting snow to reveal this intimate moment when their thick black bills came together.
Ravens probably mate for life. This couple exchanged gifts – moss, twigs and small stones – and preened and serenaded each other with soft warbling sounds to strengthen their relationship, or ‘pair bond’.
A juvenile ghost pipefish hides in the arms of a feather star. Mustard had always wanted to capture the image of a colourful juvenile ghost pipefish but usually only found darker adults on matching feather stars.
His image conveys the confusion a predator would likely face when encountering this kaleidoscope of colour and pattern. The juvenile’s loud colours signify that it landed on the coral reef in the past 24 hours. In a day or two, its colour pattern will change, enabling it to blend in with the feather star.
An intimate look is offered into the lives of cichlid fish in Lake Tanganyika as two adult male cichlids, each barely four centimeters long, fight jaw-to-jaw over a snail shell.
Inside the half-buried shell is a female ready to lay eggs. The biting and pushing lasts until the weaker fish gives way.
This struggle was over in seconds but lasted just long enough for Fitor to get his winning shot.
Lake Tanganyika is the oldest of the East African Great Lakes and home to more than 240 species of cichlid fishes. Each has a unique body shape, size and behavior to fill every kind of ecological niche.
Despite teeming with life, however, this incredible ecosystem is under threat.
The fish in the photo are among the many shell-dwelling species in Lake Tanganyika that use empty Neothauma tanganicensis shells as shelter and nest. But it’s the only one in which both male and female live together in the same shell.
Itsazo Velez, the director of the Lwiro Chimpanzee Rescue and Sanctuary Center, introduces two new rescued baby chimps into the juvenile enclosure at the Lwiro Chimpanzee Rescue and Sanctuary Center in Congo.
The rehabilitation center cares for chimpanzees orphaned as a result of the bushmeat trade. The director sits with a newly rescued chimp as she introduces it to the others.
Young chimps are given one-to-one care to ease their psychological and physical trauma.
These chimps are lucky. Fewer than one in 10 are rescued after having seen the adults in their group killed for meat. Most starve or suffer in other ways.
Many people around the globe rely on meat from wild animals – bush meat – for protein, as well as a source of income. Hunting endangered species such as chimpanzees is illegal but occurs frequently.
Stirton’s photographs document the work of the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center, which rescues and rehabilitates primates orphaned by poaching. Many of its staff are survivors of military conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Working at the center helps with their own recovery.
Itsazo is careful to introduce the new babies slowly, separating the large juveniles first and slowly allowing the group to meet the two new arrivals. They will be closely monitored by the keepers who live with the juvenile and baby chimps 24/7 in their enclosure and at night in their dormitory.
The sanctuary is a place where they can learn to be chimps for the first time and interact with other chimps. They were brought to the sanctuary after being rescued either by the Congolese Conservation authority or the Lwiro staff.
Wetlands, The Bigger Picture
The stark, straight line of a road slicing through the curves of the wetland landscape. By maneuvering his drone, Lafuente dealt with the challenges of sunlight reflected by the water and ever-changing light conditions to capture the pools as flat colours, varying according to the vegetation and mineral content.
Dividing the wetland in two, this road was constructed in the 1980s to provide access to a beach. The tidal wetland is home to more than a hundred species of birds, with ospreys and bee-eaters among many migratory visitors.
Oceans, The Bigger Picture
Blood paints the ice as a harp seal herd gives birth on unstable fractured sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, Canada.
Following a storm, it took hours of searching by helicopter to find this fractured sea ice traditionally used as a birthing platform by harp seals. “It was a pulse of life that took your breath away,’ says Hayes.
Every autumn, harp seals migrate south from the Arctic waters to their breeding grounds in Canada, delaying births until the sea ice forms.
Seals depend on the ice, which means that future population numbers are likely to be affected by climate change.
This herd of harp seal females hauled out and gave birth in late February, but a storm demolished the early sea ice that formed in late January and early February.
Concentrated by wind, wave and the current, the fragments came together to form an unstable patchwork of ice. The herd discovered this fragile ice and selected this platform as their only nursery option in the Gulf.
The loosely-connected sea ice began to disintegrate and break up early, causing another year of high pup mortality.
As temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence rise, the sea ice decreases or fails to form — with catastrophic consequences.
Rising Star Portfolio Award
Polar bears in a different light as they come ashore in summer.
On a hot summer’s day, two female polar bears took to the shallow intertidal waters to cool off and play.
Gregus used a drone to capture this moment. For him, the heart shape symbolises the apparent sibling affection between them and “the love we as people owe to the natural world.”
Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021
The Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021 was awarded to 10-year-old Vidyun R Hebbar for his colourful image of a tent spider as a tuk-tuk passes by.
Vidyun, who first participated in the competition when he was just eight years old, loves to photograph the often-overlooked creatures that live in the streets and parks near his home in Bengaluru, India.
Exploring his local theme park, Vidyun found an occupied spider’s web in a gap in a wall. A passing tuk-tuk, or motorized rickshaw, provided a backdrop of rainbow colours to set off the spider’s silk creation.
Tent spiders are tiny – this one had legs spanning less than 15 millimeters. They weave non-sticky, square-meshed domes surrounded by tangled networks of threads that make it difficult for prey to escape.
Instead of spinning new webs every day, the spiders repair existing ones.
“It’s such an imaginative way of photographing a spider,” said Rosamund Kidman Cox, chair of the judging panel. “The picture is perfectly framed; the focus is spot on.”
“You can see the spider’s fangs and the crazy weave of the trap, the threads like some delicate nerve network linked to the spider’s feet. But the really clever bit is the addition of a creative backdrop – the bright colours of a motorised rickshaw.”