The winners of the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 awards

Epic shipwrecks, fish with Mohicans and other-worldly caves: The jaw-dropping winners of the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 awards

  • They show just how awe-inspiring Mother Nature can be in aquatic mode – and how fragile she is
  • The pictures were taken in locations around the world, from Florida to Scotland and from Spain to Jordan 
  • Some of the pictures were years in the planning, and some were flashes of on-the-spot inspiration 

The underwater world has never looked so magical, mysterious and mesmerising.

These photographs are some of the stunning medal winners in the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 contest.

They show just how awe-inspiring Mother Nature can be in aquatic mode – and how fragile she is. And they also underscore the sheer skill and determination of the world’s finest underwater snappers, who brave underwater caves and shark-infested waters to bring us unforgettable pictures, some of which took years to plan.

The overall winner is Renee Capozzola from California, whose picture of blacktip reef sharks cruising beneath gulls at sunset in French Polynesia left the judges’ jaws on the floor. She triumphed over 4,500 underwater pictures entered by photographers in 68 countries. 

Meanwhile, Mark Kirkland, from Glasgow, was named as British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 for his amazing picture of a frog in a pond near his home. 

The judges said: ‘We hope that this year’s stunning collection of winning images provides a welcome escape to everyone who enjoys them and a chance to reconnect with the underwater world.’ Scroll down for MailOnline Travel’s pick of the bunch.

This stunning image, third in the compact camera category, was taken by Spanish photographer Isaias Cruz off the coast of Bermeo in the Basque Country. He said: ‘This image was taken in summer while doing a shark dive. Being surrounded by three blue sharks, this pelagic ray appeared to check the bait. It was a very rare encounter. This animal has not been sighted before in these waters, and I too had never seen this animal before.’ The judges praised the photo for its ‘beautifully timed symmetry’

German photographer Tobias Friedrich claims gold in the wrecks category thanks to this mind-blowing photograph, taken near Nassau in the Bahamas. The judges said: ‘Images leap out for several reasons; David and Goliath scale, magnitude and unambiguity to name three and this image has all of those and more. If you want to know the secret formula for a classic wreck shot, look no further.’ Tobias said: ‘This wreck was totally new to me and a big surprise when we descended as the bow is hanging almost completely over a sandy overhang’

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U.S snapper Karim Iliya takes the loftiest podium spot in the ‘behaviour’ category thanks to this amazing picture of a striped marlin in a high-speed hunt in Mexico. He said: ‘This is a terrifying scene for the small fish, fleeing for their lives as a striped marlin hunts them. The slightest mistake means life or death. There are often birds hunting from above and sometimes a dozen other marlin and sea lions attacking from all sides. The marlin is one of the fastest fish in the sea, a terrifying predator for a small fish in the great blue desert. I went to Mexico to document these feeding frenzies but did not expect such a fast-paced hunt, almost too fast for my brain to process. For a brief moment, this scene unfolded before me and I had to rely on all my instincts and practice underwater to take this photo. I used natural light and stayed on the periphery of the bait-ball to minimise disturbance. Watching wild animals hunt is one of the greatest spectacles in nature’

The runner-up spot in the behaviour category is claimed by Chinese photographer JingGong Zhang for this picture of a fish face-off off the coast of Wakayama, Japan. JingGong said: ‘This is a picture of blenny in a fight. It is a species of chaenopsid blenny found around Japan and South Korea. Its most distinctive feature is its very cool hairstyle, often referred to as a punk blenny or Mohican blenny. In fact, this kind of blenny fight scene is very rare because they usually just stay in their lair and don’t interact with other individuals. But during the breeding season, if an area is too densely populated, the blenny will engage in fierce fights for a mate, and these fights are often quickly settled. Blenny is one of my favorite projects. From getting information to the long waiting and searching, it took me about three years intermittently to shoot this scene. I would like to thank my Japanese friends who have helped me in this process. At the same time, I am very honored to share this charming moment’

This striking image shows a larval lionfish off Florida’s coast – and it snared U.S photographer Steven Kovacs the silver medal in the macro category. He said: ‘Drifting near the surface at night in over 700 feet of water, I came across this one-inch larval lionfish off the coast of Florida during a blackwater dive. This individual was exhibiting more beautiful coloration than usual, so I set out to capture its fins in full display. It’s a challenging task, not only because they shun bright lights and usually try to flee, but also because they fully flare their fins in a defensive posture very sporadically and only for brief moments. I was very fortunate to be able to capture this particular individual in all its glory’

Behold the winner of the ‘British waters compact’ category. It was taken by UK photographer Ian Wade and shows a swan feeding in St George Park, Bristol. How did Mr Wade take the remarkable image? By throwing his GoPro into the water. He said: ‘I decided to attach a small weight to the back of my GoPro and threw it into the lake a short distance from me. The small weight would mean the GoPro always fell on its back, so I could shoot at an almost vertical angle. I have connected the GoPro to my Phone so I could remotely fire off images. The GoPro hitting the water had attached the swan’s interest and they swam over. I waited until one of the swans was in the correct position and with its head underwater and shot a high-speed burst of images enabling me to capture this picture.’ The judges described the image as ‘beautiful’

LEFT: Australian photographer Diana Fernie takes first prize in the ‘black and white’ category with this breathtaking picture, snapped in the Solomon Islands. The judges said: ‘Great use of all the tones from rich black right through to clean white. The composition is classic and the decision to convert to black and white was a winning choice.’ RIGHT: This amazing picture by Japanese photographer Ryohei Ito, taken off the coast of Tateyama in Japan, has been awarded first prize in the portrait category. Ryohei said: ‘As the Asian sheepshead wrasse grows older, it changes sex from female to male and at the same time it develops a large lump on its head. I thought about the lighting and composition so that the image of the bump and the powerful face could be conveyed, and challenged many times. He lives in a shrine under the water and looks just like a guardian deity. I would like to thank my teacher, Keigo Kawamura, for teaching me how to take underwater pictures, and Hiroyuki Arakawa who guided me’

The judges were bowled over by this image, taken by U.S photographer Martin Broen in a section of an underground river in Mexico called Cenote Monkey Dust. In awarding it the runner-up prize in the ‘wide angle’ category, they said: ‘The very best cenote images often catch the judges’ eyes in UPY. But Martin’s picture raises the bar significantly both in terms of jaw-dropping beauty and for its technical achievement. This is a place few humans are capable of even reaching, so to get there and then produce a such a demanding piece of photography while in the darkness, deep underground and underwater is a stunning achievement’

This is the wide-angle category winner – and the overall winning image. It was taken by U.S photographer Renee Capozzola off the coast of Moorea in French Polynesia. The judges said: ‘A sunset ballet of reef sharks and sea birds in a tranquil corner of the Pacific Ocean is a richly deserved winner of the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021. This is an image of hope and a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance, thriving with spectacular life both below and above the surface.’ Renee said: ‘The sharks came into a nice composition, and I got lucky with the birds as well. Since many shark species are threatened with extinction, it is my hope that images of these beautiful animals will help promote their conservation’

Briton Grant Thomas takes home the runner-up medal in the wrecks category with this picture, taken off Jordan’s coast. It shows a piece of military hardware deliberately sunk for divers to explore. Judge Martin Edge said: ‘This is one of my most favourite photographs of the entire competition. As soon as I saw this shot I was mesmerised by the complexity of the lighting, the staging and just about everything else’

A basking shark gulps microscopic plankton off the coast of the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland, in an image that has snared UK photographer Mark Kirkland the runner-up spot in the ‘British waters wide angle’ category. The judges said: ‘This image raises the bar for basking shark shots. There is so much that has to come right to get a shot like this that it might seem impossible, but we now have proof. It is possible and it’s absolutely awesome.’ Mr Kirkland revealed that the shot took two years to plan, during which time he experimented with various lenses and filters

This eye-catching picture of a hairy panda goby fish off Indonesia’s coast is the runner-up in the compact category. The photographer behind it, Malaysian ManBd, said the fish was very shy and took a long time to pop its head out. The judges said: ‘A fantastic and challenging subject, expertly photographed wth the innovation you’d expect from a former winner of UPY’s Up & Coming Award’

UK-born photographer SJ Alice Bennett snaps up two titles with this image, taken in a water-filled Mexican cave: ‘Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 and Most Promising British Underwater Photographer 2021. The judges said: ‘We always value fresh vision in the Up & Coming category and the combination of incredible lighting and shallow depth of field empower this image with originality and truly capture the spirit of adventure that the photographer was striving for’

Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2021 is Karim Iliya for this picture of a very crowded island off the coast of Panama’s Guna Yala region. The judges said: ‘A stark visual reminder of how we humans over-populate and totally develop land, then overfish the surrounding delicate environment. This image captures that unnatural and unsustainable imbalance perfectly’

Take a bow, Mr Malcolm Nimmo. This UK photographer has won the ‘British waters macro’ category with this incredible image of a variable blenny fish, taken in the waters of Plymouth Sound. The judges said: ‘A beautiful UK fish portrait. Everything about this image is perfect.’ Does this fish have something of the Jar Jar Binks about it? We think so

Mark Kirkland has been named British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 – and the British waters wide angle category winner – for this picture, which he took close to his home in Glasgow. Mr Kirkland said: ‘This small muddy pond is an unlikely haven for wildlife, squeezed between a housing estate, supermarket and factory. But for a few nights each year, while the city sleeps, it comes alive with frogs. This frame was the culmination of 25 hours over four winter nights of lying stationary in darkness. Was it time well spent? Absolutely!’ The judge Peter Rowland said: ‘I honestly think that the appearance of this image will go down in the history of underwater photography as a defining moment. Perfect yet flawed, natural in urban. I think it is a masterpiece. Savour it’

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