An eye-catching photo of a pink river dolphin breaching the surface of the Amazon River has seen Kat Zhou of the United States named Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023.
Zhou’s photograph ‘Boto Encantado’ triumphed over more than 6000 pictures submitted to the contest by underwater photographers from 72 countries. The image, a split shot taken at sunset, perfectly frames the Endangered species of dolphin.
‘There’s a legend among locals that river dolphins, or ‘botos’, can transform into handsome men known as ‘boto encantado’ to seduce women,’ said Zhou, talking about her winning photograph. ‘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 wanted 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,’ said Zhou. ‘Many river dolphins have been killed for use as fish bait, drowned in gill nets or poisoned by mercury pollution from mining. I fear that one day, botos will truly become no more than mythical creatures.’
Chair of the competition judges, Alex Mustard, said the picture was ‘at first glance simple, then simply perfect.’
‘In dark, tannic waters, Kat has created a striking composition capturing this rarely photographed and endangered species in a precision composition.’ said Mustard. ‘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 uprated to Endangered in 2019.’
“It is appropriate that the Amazon, as the world’s mightiest river, has produced our overall winner,” added 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. Being more than a nature contest, we even have winners taken in swimming pools.’
British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest is based in the UK, and Ollie Clarke was named British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023 for his image ‘The Swarm’, depicting a giant whale shark hidden within a bait ball of smaller fish.
Clarke, an Englishman now living in Australia, shot the picture in Ningaloo, Western Australia. ‘Whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef are often accompanied by small groups of fish,’ he said. ‘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, Alex Mustard said ‘Whale sharks are sometimes mislabelled 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.’
Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023
Spanish photographer, Alvaro Herrero, was named the ‘Save Our Seas Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023, with his photograph ‘Hopeless’. Taken in Mexico, Herrero’s image shows of a humpback whale dying of starvation because it is unable to swim properly after its tail has been broken from being entangled in ropes and buoys.
‘Taking this photograph was the saddest moment I’ve experienced in the ocean,’ said Herrero, ‘especially because I have spent so much time with humpbacks underwater, experiencing eye contact, interactions, and seeing how the whales are such intelligent and sentient beings.
‘The photo is a reflection of how our oceans are suffering, the product of man’s selfishness and lack of responsibility,’ said Herrero, ‘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.’
‘What a message this image delivers,’ said Competition judge Tobias Friedrich. ‘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.
Dr James Lea, CEO of the Save Our Seas Foundation, said: ‘Images have a profound capacity to affect how people view the world, and at SOSF we are all about encouraging positive change in how people view and interact with the marine environment.’
Category Winner. Wide Angle
‘Fade ‘ – J. Gregory Sherman (USA)/UPY 2023
Location: Stingray City, Cayman Islands; Camera: Canon5Dsr; Lens: 8-15mm; ISO: 1000; Aperture: f/5.6; Shutter: 1/80; Lighting: Sea & Sea YS-d2
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 colorful dawn sky contrasted against the nearly monochromatic stingrays and sand beneath the surface chop.
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. – Peter Rowlands
Category Winner: Macro
‘Unsung’ – Shane Gross (Canada)/UPY 2023
Location: Vancouver Island, Canada; Camera: NikonZ6; Lens: Laowa Probe Lens; ISO: 2000; Aperture: f/40; Shutter: 1/200; Lighting: Big Blue AL1200NP II dive torch
Housing: No housing
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 deepwater 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!
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 toddler. – Alex Mustard
Category Winner: Wrecks
‘Engine With a Saddle’ – Brett Eldridge (USA)/UPY 2023
Location: Point Loma, California; Camera: Sonya7rIV; Lens: 28-60 @28mm with Nauticam WWL1-B; ISO: 1600; Aperture: f/8.0; Shutter: 1/50; Lighting: 2 x Keldan 8x 18,000 Lumen Lights; Housing: Nauticam NA-A7RIV
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 WWII 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 December 19th and crossed my fingers. We fortunately had epic conditions and I got the photos I needed. It was my last dive of 2022.
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 II fighter. – Alex Mustard
Category Winner: Behaviour
‘Make Love Not War’ – Yury Ivanov (Indonesia)/UPY 2023
Location: Tulamben, Bali; Camera: NikonD850; Lens: Nikon AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8D; ISO: 64; Aperture: f/14; Shutter: 1/250; Lighting: INON Z-330 Type 2; Housing: Nauticam NA D850
A couple of coconut octopuses “making love” (mating). I knew that I can find this species of Octopus at one of dive sites near Tulamben village (Bali, Indonesia) and they are active only at night time in that place. I dive there only after 7pm hoping to photograph something unique – their mating. I`ve done more than 30 night dives at the dive site and finally I got lucky. The photo shows the end of their love.
An absolutely 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. – Tobias Friedrich
Category Winner: Portrait
‘The Trunk’ – Suliman Alatiqi (Kuwait)/UPY 2023
Location: Phuket, Thailand; Camera: NikonD850; Lens: AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED; ISO: 1000; Aperture: f/20; Shutter: 1/320; Lighting : Ambient light; Housing: Nauticam NA D850
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.
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. – Alex Mustard
Category Winner: Black and White
‘El Blanco – The White One’ – Don Silcock (Australia)/UPY 2023
Location: Península Valdés, Argentina; Camera: NikonD850; Lens: Nikon 28-70 and Nauticam WACP-1; ISO: 320; Aperture: f10; Shutter: 1/250; Lighting: Natural light (no strobes); Housing: Nauticam NA D850
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 it’s 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!
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! – Tobias Friedrich
Category Winner: Compact
‘Klunzinger’s Wrasse In Motion’ – Enrico Somogyi (Germany)/UPY 2023
Location: Marsa Alam, Egypt; Camera: Sony RX100vii; Lens: Nauticam EMWL 130; ISO: 64; Aperture: f/11; Shutter: 1/13; Lighting: 2x Retra Flash Pro; Housing: Fantasea FRX 100vii
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.
An intelligent image playing to the camera’s strengths and producing an end result that most bigger cameras would be proud of. – Peter Rowlands
Category Winner: Up and Coming;
Winner: Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
‘Boto Encantado’ – Kat Zhou (USA)/UPY 2023
Location: Amazon, Brazil; Camera: NikonD850; Lens: Nikon 8-15mm fisheye with Kenko 1.4x teleconverter; ISO: 400; Aperture: f/13; Shutter: 1/160; Lighting: 2 x Inon Z330; Housing: Nauticam NA D850
There’s a legend among locals in the Amazon that river dolphins, or ‘botos’, can transform into handsome men known as ‘boto encantado’ at night to seduce women. Though I did not witness this elusive boto transformation, at dusk 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 indigenous communities settled by rivers in the Amazon, river dolphins began living in closer proximity to human populations, even making use of food scraps. Frequent dolphin sightings led to tales like boto encantado, but there’s a darker side to the legend, as it was often used to excuse pregnancies after women were assaulted or forced into prostitution.
While botos are generally revered as mythical creatures, many scorned husbands have killed dolphins because of these stories. Furthermore, many river dolphins have also been killed for use as fish bait. Though there have been bans on this practice, it has not been eradicated. With this, alongside even bigger impacts like mercury poisoning due to the gold mining industry and large development projects that have disrupted the river ecosystems, I fear that one day, botos will truly become no more than mythical creatures.
This is a perfectly timed and composed image of a distinct but rarely well-photographed subject so it stood out from the crowd very early on. Like a chef reducing his sauce, this powerful image improved with each viewing and saw off the incredibly high-quality images that this Competition attracts. A pleasure to behold. – Peter Rowlands
A first glance simple, then simply perfect. In dark, tannic waters, Kat has created a striking composition capturing this rarely photographed and vulnerable species at the perfect moment. I love the almost monochromatic burnt orange colour palette of the pink dolphin, photographed through brown waters and framed against the setting sun. By far the best image we’ve ever seen of this species. – Alex Mustard
Wow – maybe the best image of a river dolphin I have ever seen. I love split shots as well and this image does the purpose perfectly. It works in every discipline: Wideangle, portrait and behaviour at the same time. The look and the pose of the dolphin is just perfect – congrats to Kat for achieving this! – Tobias Friedrich
Category Runner-up: Up and Coming; Winner: British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
‘The Swarm’ – Ollie Clarke (Australia)/UPY 2023
Location: Ningaloo Reef, Australia; Camera: SonyA7Riii; Lens: Sony 28-60 with Nauticam WACP-1; ISO: 400; Aperture: f/8; Shutter: 1/250; Lighting: Natural light; Housing: Nauticam NA-A7Riii
The whale sharks on the Ningaloo are often accompanied by bait balls like this one, where the small fish use the shark as a floating shelter. However this one was huge, much denser and with a lot more fish than usual, so I was really excited to photograph it. The shark almost looked as if it was getting fed up with the small fish and it was attempting to shake off the swarm. It would make steep dives and then ascend again right away thrashing its tail, but the fish would just swirl even more densely around the poor shark, who would have barely been able to see through the bait ball! I was hoping to spend a bit of time photographing this shark, but after some ups and downs, he disappeared into the depths of the Indian Ocean, an encounter I’ll never forget.
For me, this is predator and the prey. Whale sharks are sometimes mislabelled as plankton feeders, but they are also active predators of schools of small fish. Ollie’s stunning image is perfectly timed as the shark pounces, switching from benign escort to hunter, mouth gulping down its prey. – Alex Mustard
Category Winner: British Waters Wide Angle;
Winner: Most Promising British Underwater Photographer 2023.
‘An Island’s Wild Seas’ – Theo Vickers (UK)/UPY 2023
Location: Needles Marine Conservation Zone, Isle of Wight, UK; Camera: Sony A6400; Lens: Sony 16-50mm; ISO: 500; Aperture: f/10; Shutter: 1/160; Lighting: Natural Lighting; Housing: Fantasea FA6400
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.
What a stunning image! This magical and mystic atmosphere is just blasting. A very good example of 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. :-) – Tobias Friedrich
Category Winner: British Waters Macro
‘Egg Eater’ – Kirsty Andrews (UK)/UPY 2023
Location: Shetland, Scotland, UK; Camera: NikonD500; Lens: 60mm; ISO: 320; Aperture: f29; Shutter: 1/250; Lighting: 2x Retra Pro strobes; Housing: Nauticam NA D500
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.
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, an element of behaviour. What more can you wish for? Very well done and congratulations! – Tobias Friedrich
Category Winner: British Waters Living Together
‘Pipe Reef’ – Dan Bolt (UK)/UPY 2023
Location: Loch Fyne, western Scotland, UK; Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M1; Lens: Panasonic 8mm fisheye; ISO: 1250; Aperture: f/5.6; Shutter: 1/30; Lighting: 2x Sea & Sea YD-D1; Housing: Aquatica A-EM1
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.
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. – Alex Mustard
Category Winner: British Waters Compact
‘Crack Rock Blenny’ – Tony Reed (UK)/UPY 2023
Location: Babbacombe, England, UK; Camera: Olympus TG4; Lens: No lens; ISO: 200; Aperture: f/4.9; Shutter: 1/250; Lighting: light and motion video light; Housing: Olympus PT-056
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 effects on the parenting behaviour. It has been great to see an increase in the Variable Blenny around Torbay over the past couple of years.
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. – Alex Mustard
Winner. Save Our Seas Foundation Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023
‘Hopeless’ – Alvaro Herrero (Spain)/UPY 2023
Location: Baja California, Mexico; Camera: Nikon D500; Lens: Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6; ISO: 200; Aperture: 6.3; Shutter: 1/320; Lighting: Natural Light; Housing: Isotta D500
A humpback whale dies a slow, painful and agonizing death after having its tail entangled in ropes and buoys, rendering its tail completely useless. A reflection of what not only our oceans are suffering, but also our planet, the product of man’s selfishness and lack of responsibility.
Taking this photograph was, for me, 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 with my own eyes how they are sentient and intelligent beings. But I’m “happy” to be able to capture that moment and show the world what is happening, what we are doing. I really hope this image makes us aware, opens our eyes and drives us to make real changes.
What a stunning image and what a message that it delivers. I can’t imagine the sadness when this poor whale has been discovered, but also a good decision to take a few images to actually get a message of awareness out to the public. For me, it was clear from the beginning that this image is the winner of the category. Well done. – Tobias Friedrich
The full collection of awarded images can be seen on the contest’s website and in the free eBook of winners. See www.underwaterphotographeroftheyear.com for more.