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26 award-winning underwater photos reveal the magical worlds beneath the ocean's surface

The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest recognizes photographers who capture stunning photos below sea level. Here are this year's winners.

© Trevor Rees/UPY2020

By Talia Lakritz, INSIDER

  • The Underwater Photographer of the Year awards announced the winners of its 2020 contest.
  • The photos show animals such as fish, crabs, sharks, and seahorses in the wild, as well as shipwrecks and coral reefs.
  • The overall winning picture captures crabeater seals swimming around an iceberg in Antarctica.

Underwater photography often requires navigating choppy waters, unpredictable creatures, and treacherous depths to get the perfect shot. The Underwater Photographer of the Year competition recognizes talented photographers from around the world who brave the elements to capture photos below sea level.

Click through this gallery to see the winners and runner-ups from each category, as well as the overall winning photographs in this year's contest.


British Waters Compact runner-up: "Fluo Fireworks Anemone" by James Lynott

© James Lynott/UPY2020

"Over recent years, underwater fluorescence photography has become a passion of mine, particularly in British waters, and I now find myself choosing my fluorescence gear over my 'normal' kit more often when diving. I never know quite what I'm going to find that will fluoresce under the blue light, but on this dive in Loch Fyne, I had one target in mind: fireworks anemones. There were dozens of anemones at this site, all with varying patterns on their tentacles. This particular anemone really stood out in the darkness as its fluorescence was so bright."


British Waters Compact winner: "Smile" by Colin Garrett

© Colin Garrett/UPY2020

"Early in April 2019, sightings of a lone male bottlenose dolphin had been reported in and around Portland Harbor. I had been out on a local wreck dive with Dale Spree and Jessica Hannah and had had a strange feeling beforehand that the chances of meeting him were quite high. The dive itself came and went with no sighting. But fortune was to be on our side, for on our return across the harbor, Dale spotted the distinctive dorsal fin. As the animal approached us, Jessica and I slipped in with just snorkeling equipment and waited, hoping ... It turned out he wasn't nervous in the slightest and swam straight to the camera."


British Waters Living Together runner-up: "Cone Home" by Kirsty Andrews

© Kirsty Andrews/UPY2020

"It's never nice to see discarded man-made items on the sea floor, but in this case, a common lobster was taking advantage of the situation. A traffic cone provided a handy vantage point to overlook the seabed as well as a large, lobster-sized shelter on an otherwise relatively flat landscape."


British Waters Living Together winner: "Pier Nursery" by Dan Bolt

© Dan Bolt/UPY2020

"This image shows how important man-made structures can be for marine life. Paignton Pier in South Devon is no exception. The pier legs are home to many sponges, anemones, and molluscs, while in the summer months many hundreds of juvenile fish use the structure as shelter from larger predators. Diving under the pier with the sun shining through the shallow water, it can be hard to believe you're in the UK!"


British Waters Macro runner-up: "Cuckoo Wrasse Head-On" by Trevor Rees

© Trevor Rees/UPY2020

"Of all the fish in British waters, a male cuckoo wrasse takes some beating for its striking blue and orange coloration. They are therefore always a favorite subject, and this one proved a cooperative individual. The Plymouth Mewstone on England's south coast often guarantees seeing and getting close to these charismatic fish. I aimed for a straight head-on composition with maximum symmetry. It took a few frames to get both eyes facing forwards and nicely in focus."


British Waters Macro winner: "Like Water for Silk" by Laura Storm

© Laura Storm/UPY2020

"Over the past couple of years, I've been photographing British freshwater habitats underwater. One of the stories that has captivated me is that of the common frog. During its lifetime, it has an estimated 0.25% chance of survival. It morphs like no other creature and along the way, experiences the most fantastic journey.

This tiny common froglet is less than one centimeter in length. It is so weightless it can balance on single, silken stands of Spirogyra. These algae filaments, an abundant and vital first link in freshwater food webs, reproduce rapidly leading to thousands of individual strands. They are a simple life form which combine into a tangled labyrinth known as water silk."


British Waters Wide Angle runner-up: "Big Mouth, Small Prey" by Will Clark

© Will Clark/UPY2020

"To photograph basking sharks, you must first spot one feeding, then get in the water as quietly as you can some distance away in its direction of travel. You watch for any change of direction as it approaches and move accordingly. When it gets nearby, you have to lie quietly at the surface with your fins up, so as to resemble a floating log. Make one wrong move, such as a splash, and the shark closes its mouth and dives deep below you."


British Waters Wide Angle winner: "Jewel Reef" by Arthur Kingdon

© Arthur Kingdon/UPY2020

"This image was shot at a site whose location is known only to the excellent skipper of Dive Scilly, and it proved to be a stunning site with jewel anemones everywhere. This was the first dive of the week and it was my first dive with my new camera and housing. After a shot to check exposure and lighting, I took this one and it proved to be the best of the week! I was helped by some fine modelling by Paula who had opted to leave her camera behind on this dive. Her offer to model was very gratefully accepted."


Behavior runner-up: "Say 'Me'" by Paolo Isgro

© Paolo Isgro/UPY2020

"This photo was taken in Tonga during a Naia liveaboard. On the second day, in the middle of lunch, the cruise director called us because there was a lot of whale action right around the boat. We jumped into wetsuits and dove into the water. A couple of young whales really wanted to play with us, and they kept getting closer by the minute. I saw this whale coming so close to me. It looked at me very intensely and said 'hello' in one breath, exhaling so many bubbles."


Behavior winner: "Octopus Training" by Pasquale Vassallo

© Pasquale Vassallo/UPY2020

"At the end of a session of free diving, I noticed a soccer ball in the distance and on the surface. Intrigued, I approached it, and then I noticed that below it was an octopus being pulled along by the current. I do not know what it was doing under the ball, but I think it was training for the next World Cup! There was time for me to take a couple of shots before the octopus let go of the ball and dropped back to the seabed."


Portrait runner-up: "Angry Seahorse" by Rooman Luc

© Rooman Luc/UPY2020

"I heard that there was a seahorse at a certain dive site in the Eastern Scheldt. From then on, I went looking for the seahorse every week, and eventually found it. It was posing so nicely around a pipe that I had ample time to photograph it with the snoot. This gives the seahorse an angry look, but that is fortunately a mere appearance."


Portrait winner: "Butterfly Effect" by Lilian Koh

© Lilian Koh/UPY2020

"Having been immersed mostly in creative macro, this is the first time I have used a snoot technique on a larger scale. Maintaining a shallow depth to capture the reflection, the snoot is used to bring focus to the model while the blue light catches the flowing veil that frames her, creating a butterfly effect."


Compact runner-up: "Squid in Disco Fever" by Enrico Somogyi

© Enrico Somogyi/UPY2020

"Here, I tried a slow shutter speed picture of a reef squid at night. I used a flash with a snoot to freeze the motion. For the colors, I used two colored lights on the left and the right side of the port. After pressing the trigger, I intentionally moved the camera to create the patterns."


Compact winner: "Uluna Lily" by MANBD

© MANBD/UPY2020

"Uluna Lake in North Sulawesi is a place I've always wanted to visit. When I got the opportunity to dive in this freshwater lake at the end of last year, I knew what I wanted to shoot. This crystal clear lake is famous for its water lilies which only bloom in the morning."


Black and White runner-up: "Constellation of Eagle Rays" by Henley Spiers

© Henley Spiers/UPY2020

"A school of uniquely patterned spotted eagle rays passed beneath me on an unforgettable dive in the Maldives. Like most divers, I have always found these rays to be especially spellbinding, but also highly elusive! This school passed beneath me towards the end of our dive and it was one of those rare moments of huge admiration, as well as immense inspiration."


Black and White winner: "Layered Thoughts" by Mok Wai Hoe

© Mok Wai Hoe/UPY2020

"The creation of this image was inspired by in-camera double exposure photography. This abstract style typically involves re-exposing the silhouette of a person against a textured background such as urban landscape. I was mesmerized by the aesthetics as well as the extensive possibilities of interpreting this form of visual art. At the same time, I also found no examples of the style applied underwater. This black and white image was made by first shooting a silhouette against a cloudy afternoon sky. The picture was then re-exposed against the image of a coral garden."


Wrecks runner-up: "Saudi Titanic" by Renee Capozzola

© Renee Capozzola/UPY2020

"In 1978, this large cargo ship became stranded on a bed of corals and then had a large fire. The wreck is now known by many locals as the 'Saudi Titanic.' There is a large school of tiny fish that live inside and there is abundant coral growth on the ship itself, which now serves as an artificial reef for many marine organisms."


Wrecks winner: "The Engine" by Tobias Friedrich

© Tobias Friedrich/UPY2020

"A panoramic image of the engine room of the Chrisoula K. with six video lights placed behind the engines. The space between the engine inside the wreck is very narrow and the angle for a single photo was just not enough, so I thought it was the best idea to create a panoramic image to display the machine room in one shot. Placing the lights took some time, as well as finding the right mix of ambiance and light from the outside. Because the wreck is dived a lot in the Red Sea, I had to wait for a good slot when nobody was inside it."


Macro runner-up: "Eyes" by Keigo Kawamura

© Keigo Kawamura/UPY2020

"There are thousands to tens of thousands of unicorn shrimp, but there are only a few suitable places to shoot them. The direction and density of the tide may vary depending on the direction, strength, and brightness in the ocean. I went there many times because I could only stay for 15 minutes once a day. I was lucky to be able to find and shoot the ideal situation."


Macro winner: "Goby Goodness" by Hannes Klostermann

© Hannes Klostermann/UPY2020

"I dropped down from the surface and descended towards the shallow, pristine coral reef in the Cayman Islands when I spotted this little fella posing right at the top of a coral head. I noticed the purple sea fan in the background and suspected it would look pleasing with a shallow depth of field, a look I really like in macro photography. After I had taken the first image, I knew I would spend the entire dive with this goby, as the complementary colors of the fan and coral head worked very well together. Thankfully, the goby really seemed to enjoy the prime spot at the top of the coral head, so it kept coming back to have its picture taken, not minding my close approach one bit."


Marine Conservation runner-up: 'Double Trouble with a Glimmer of Hope" by David Alpert

© David Alpert/UPY2020

"In this double exposure, the base picture is from Hong Kong's dry food market, a prominent outlet for shark fins. Overlaid is a blacktip reef shark in Misool, a former shark finning station. The Hong Kong shot needed to be speedy and discrete. No time to change settings or compose. Misool was the opposite. The skittish blacktips avoid divers. No bait was used, and I waited almost an entire dive to get this picture.

The juxtaposition of the starkly contrasting scenarios highlights the need for urgent action to address trade in exotic marine foods and increase the number of marine protected areas before it's too late."


Marine Conservation winner: "Last Dawn, Last Gasp" by Pasquale Vassallo

© Pasquale Vassallo/UPY2020

"This winter, I went diving with some local fishermen. At six in the morning, I was already in the water as the nets were raised at first light. During the dive, I followed the path of the fishing nets from the bottom to the surface. As the fishermen quickly hauled the nets, I tried to take some shots of trapped fish still suffering in the mesh, such as this tuna."


Most Promising British Underwater Photographer of the Year: "Commotion in the Ocean" by Nur Tucker

© Nur Tucker/UPY2020

"This image shows my very favorite of the species, the thorny sea horse. Over time, I have tried many different techniques, with varying degrees of success, including backlighting, side lighting, snooting, panning, double exposure and silhouette shots. I love experimenting even if this comes at the expense of a wasted dive. On this particular dive in Dumaguete, Philippines, I was keen to aim for something different and potentially offbeat."


Up and Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year: "Lemon Shark Pups in Mangrove Nursery" by Anita Kainrath

© Anita Kainrath/UPY2020

"I was standing in knee-high water, trying to hold my camera still, waiting for the sharks. Trying not to move when you have mosquitoes and sand-flies buzzing around you was probably the part I struggled with the most. After less than one hour, the little predators came closer and finally swam around my feet and my camera, bumping against me and trying to taste my strobes. They are curious little fellas, but you need time to gain their trust. I love observing them in their natural habitat, and that's what I wanted to capture."


British Underwater Photographer of the Year: "Rabbit Fish Zoom Blur" by Nicholas More

© Nicholas More/UPY2020

"I have been taking motion blur pictures for a few years now. I like how the technique adds dynamism to pictures. The picture was taken in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, in November 2019. I came across a school of very friendly rabbit fish under a jetty and took lots of schooling shots. The picture came together when the school bunched tightly together in a vertical tower with them all facing the camera. I hit the shutter and zoomed in at the same time, the flash freezing the central fish with the ambient light and creating a pop art effect."


Underwater Photographer of the Year winner: "Frozen Mobile Home" by Greg Lecoeur

© Greg Lecoeur/UPY2020

"Massive and mysterious habitats, icebergs are dynamic kingdoms that support marine life. As they swing and rotate slowly through polar currents, icebergs fertilize the oceans by carrying nutrients from land that spark blooms of phytoplankton, fundamental to the carbon cycle. During an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula with filmmaker Florian Fisher and freediver Guillaume Nery, we explored and documented the hidden face of this iceberg where crabeater seals have taken up residence on icebergs that drift at the whim of polar currents."

See more at: INSIDER

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Pets Magazine: 26 award-winning underwater photos reveal the magical worlds beneath the ocean's surface
26 award-winning underwater photos reveal the magical worlds beneath the ocean's surface
The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest recognizes photographers who capture stunning photos below sea level. Here are this year's winners.
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