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Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021: Winners

  • Written by  Geographical
  • Published in Wildlife
Winner of this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Creation – by Laurent Ballesta Winner of this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Creation – by Laurent Ballesta ©Lauren Ballesta
14 Oct
The winners of the most hotly anticipated photography competition have been announced

French underwater photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta has been awarded this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image Creation. The evocative image depicts the camouflage grouper fish as they burst from a nebulous cloud of their eggs and sperm in Fakarava, French Polynesia.

For five years, Ballesta’s team annually returned to the lagoon. Day or night, they would dive to see the annual spawning of camouflage groupers. Spawning occurs around July’s full moon, when up to 20,000 fish gather in a narrow southern channel linking the lagoon with the ocean. In the surrounding waters, overfishing threatens the species, but in Fakarava, they are protected within a ‘biosphere reserve’ – UNESCO-designated areas to test interdisciplinary approaches to managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems.

Geographical is pleased to bring you a selection of the winning images. Displayed alongside insights from Natural History Museum scientists and experts, the winning 100 images will be showcased in lightbox displays at the Natural History Museum, opening on 15 October 2021. Book your tickets!

Sunflower songbird by Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco, Spain Winner, 11–14 years

 Andres Luis Dominguez Blanco Wildlife Photographer of the Year ©Andres Luis Dominguez Blanco – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco (Spain) enjoys the splendour of the sunflowers and a melodious warbler singing its heart out.

As light faded at the end of a warm May afternoon, Andrés’s attention was drawn to a warbler flitting from flower to flower. 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, which each have a distinctive song. The song of a melodious warbler is a pleasant babbling and without the mimicked sounds that other warblers sometimes make.

Grizzly leftovers by Zack Clothier, USA Winner, Animals in their Environment

 Zack Clothier Wildlife Photographer of the Year ©Zack Clothier – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Zack Clothier (USA) discovers a grizzly bear has taken an interest in his camera trap.

Zack decided these bull elk remains were an ideal spot to set a camera trap. Returning to the scene was challenging. Zack bridged gushing meltwater with fallen trees, only to find his setup trashed. This was the last frame captured on the camera.

Grizzlies, a subspecies of brown bears, spend up to seven months in torpor – a light form of hibernation. Emerging in spring, they are hungry and consume a wide variety of food, including mammals.

Head to head by Stefano Unterthiner, Italy, Winner, Behaviour: Mammals

 Stefano Unterthiner Wildlife Photographer of the Year ©Stefano Unterthiner – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Stefano Unterthiner (Italy) watches two Svalbard reindeer battle for control of a harem.

Stefano followed these reindeer during the rutting season. Watching the fight, he felt immersed in ‘the smell, the noise, the fatigue and the pain’. The reindeer clashed antlers until the dominant male (left) chased its rival away, securing the opportunity to breed.

Reindeer are widespread around the Arctic, but this subspecies occurs only in Svalbard. Populations are affected by climate change, where increased rainfall can freeze on the ground, preventing access to plants that would otherwise sit under soft snow.

 Alex Mustard Wildlife Photographer of the Year ©Alex Mustard – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Alex Mustard (UK) finds a ghost pipefish hiding among the arms of a feather star.

Alex had always wanted to capture this image of a 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.

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Nursery meltdown by Jennifer Hayes, USA Winner, Oceans: The Bigger Picture

 Jennifer Hayes Wildlife Photographer of the Year ©Jennifer Hayes – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Jennifer Hayes (USA) records harp seals, seal pups and the blood of birth against melting sea ice.

Following a storm, it took hours of searching by helicopter to find this fractured sea ice used as a birthing platform by harp seals. ‘It was a pulse of life that took your breath away,’ says Jennifer.

Every autumn, harp seals migrate south from the Arctic to their breeding grounds, 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.

Road to ruin by Javier Lafuente, Spain Winner, Wetlands - The Bigger Picture

 Javier Lafuente Wildlife Photographer of the Year ©Javier Lafuente – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Javier Lafuente (Spain) shows the stark, straight line of a road slicing through the curves of the wetland landscape.

By manoeuvring his drone and inclining the camera, Javier dealt with the challenges of sunlight reflected by the water and ever-changing light conditions. He captured 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.

Elephant in the room by Adam Oswell, Australia Winner, Photojournalism

 Adam Oswell Wildlife Photographer of the Year© Adam Oswell – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Adam Oswell (Australia) draws attention to zoo visitors watching a young elephant perform under water.

Although this performance was promoted as educational and as exercise for the elephants, Adam was disturbed by this scene. Organisations 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.

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