With World Oceans Day on June 8, it's important to take the time to appreciate the beauty of marine life and remember why it's more urgent now than ever before to take action to protect our oceans. These photos, finalists for the 2019 Underwater Photographer of the Year international contest — ultimately won by UK photographer Richard Barnden for his photo of a swarm of sharks hunting prey — are striking visual reminders of the destruction of the world’s oceans and how critical marine conservation efforts are.
From Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, photographer Eduardo Acevedo was named the winner of the marine conservation category and Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2019, earlier this year. His image showed a loggerhead turtle entangled in a plastic fishing net left behind in waters off the shore of Tenerife, highlighting the hazards of plastic pollution on marine life.
“Plastic pollution and ghost fishing are ever increasing serious issues threatening the ocean, this sad image highlights both issues,” Alex Mustard, one of this year’s judges, said about the winning photograph.
The work of other highly commended finalists in the contest depicted the impact of human activity on marine ecosystems, including littering that contributes to pollution, illegal fishing, and overexploitation of marine animals.
While many of these images are heart-breaking, some are reminders of natural wonders that stand to be lost. These photos, celebrating the beauty of the world’s waters and the positive effects of conservation efforts, show that with the right intervention and strict adherence, marine life can thrive.
Here are some of the most notable photos from this year’s contest, accompanied by each photographer's notes about the powerful and haunting stories behind them:
Caretta Caretta Turtle, Winner, Marine Conservation category and Winner Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2019 winner: "The Caretta caretta turtles spend much of their life in the open ocean. They come to the Canary Island after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean beaches. In this trip of many years they often have to avoid many dangerous traps like plastics, ropes, fishing nets etc. In this particular case it got trapped in a net and it was practically impossible to escape from it ... but this day it was very lucky and could escape thanks to the help of two underwater photographers who were sailing near her." Taken in Los Gigantes, South Tenerife, Canary Island, Spain.
Curious Crabeater, Runner Up, Wide Angle category: "As a biologist I have been working with seals for many years and traveling to the Antarctic since 2009. This is a photo from one of my favorite encounters. It was captured on a snowy dramatic day, the sky could not have been more perfect. We were in a spot known as the Iceberg Graveyard on the Antarctic Peninsula, where massive ice giants come to rest on a rocky bottom. There was a group of eight crabeater seals cavorting around the bergs and they spent the better part of an hour spy hopping, splashing and circling around us. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have had with this species. Out of all the shots this was my favorite. This curious Antarctic seal in his incredible polar home." Taken in Pleneau Bay, Antarctic Peninsula.
The Gauntlet, Winner, Behavior category, Winner British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2019, and Underwater Photographer of the Year 2019: "As the sun sets on Fakarava South Pass, the estimated 700 sharks that are patrolling the mouth of the channel by day, begins to hunt at night. The gauntlet is about to unfold. Descending into the darkness I can feel my heart beating a little faster than normal as hundreds of sharks are now covering the bottom. This unlucky parrotfish dodged in and out of the patch coral heads looking for somewhere to hide as swarms of sharks followed in hot pursuit. One grey reef shark suddenly grabbed the parrotfish by its head as the another twisted underneath it to get a better grip. In desperation it hurtled straight towards me as I snapped a few passing shots and curled up into a ball as the frenzy of sharks shot past, leaving only but a few falling parrotfish scales behind." Taken in Fakarava South Pass, French Polynesia.
Fly High and Smile, Winner, Portrait category: "Abandoned by swimmers and divers for many years because of the gold mine just on the edge of the gulf, Stratoni is a well kept secret for scuba divers and macro photographers. I visited Stratoni three times in August 2018 for a photo project dedicated to the seahorse colony that managed to survive there. On my third and last visit I was planning to create a specific group photo of seahorses, before the sunset using natural light. Just on time of the big finale, a small ray came into the scene! Hidden in the sand a few centimetres from my camera, took off swimming in the shallows. I managed to swim with him and place my camera underneath to capture a portrait of his belly with the mouth and nose looking like a smiling happy angel’s face, with the sun beams on the background softening the color to emerald." Taken in Stratoni, Chalkidiki Peninsula, Greece.
The Bell, Third Place,Wrecks category: "The Baltic Sea is a treasure trove of wooden wrecks. However, many of them have been stripped of their wheels, bells and artifacts. This unknown and unnamed wreck is a new find by one of my friends. The bell has been moved from its original site but it is with the wreck in quite a natural setting. I had dived the wreck once before. Therefore we could agree on the shot on the surface. The water was very murky, so minimal shooting distance was required. Murky water also allows for powerful backlighting. This picture is a vertical panorama of two shots. It looked good already in the water and I was very happy to find out that the initials of the model diver showed perfectly on the fins." Taken in Porkkala Peninsula, The Baltic Sea, Finland.
Playtime?, Winner, British Waters Compact category: "If ever there was an invitation to play this was it! I love diving with and photographing seals, and have dived with them round the UK but this was my first trip to The Farne Islands and what a 'Sealfest' I was treated to. The younger pups especially were very curious of us, the lumbering black bubble monsters. This is great for us as photographers as we can wait for them to become increasingly inquisitive. This adorable seal pirouetted and arabesqued around me before sliding in and flicking sand over itself in a final attempt to get me to play — and it nearly worked! Using the ambient light and managing the aperture and shutter speed I have tried to focus and lock on the face but also capture a sense of movement, but the irresistible pose and eyes though are all this seal's own work." Taken in Farne Islands, England.
Fast Cuttlefish, Winner, Macro category: "In the first three months of the year I often go to the Gulf of Trieste in the north-east of Italy where I do night dives to take pictures of small cuttlefishes, more precisely of the species "Sepiola sp." The hope, given the period, is to find the cuttlefish during the mating phase. During the research I found this Sepiola that moved about a half meter from the bottom. Looking at his way of moving, I was reminded of the idea of trying to make a panning shot and to photograph the effect of the movement to give dynamism to the image. Using the slow sync flash technique, after some unsuccessful attempts and after changing the parameters of my camera, I managed to capture an image that represents the movement and good visual impact (actually they move in the opposite direction... but that's another story)." Taken in Trieste Gulf, Italy.
Beauty in the Mud, Winner, British Waters Macro category: "Easter 2018 found me diving in Loch Duich on the west coast of Scotland. My target subject was the fireworks anemone which are found on the muddy sea bed towards the head of the loch. However, while searching for these, I spotted a length of plastic pipe lying partially buried in the mud. Moving cautiously to avoid stirring up the silt, I reached the open end and was delighted to find this collection of marine life. A long clawed squat lobster posed proudly outside his man-made home, which he shared with numerous brittlestars, while dainty sea loch anemones decorated the entrance. To capture the beauty of this scene I chose to restrict the lighting to one strobe, snooted for a spotlight effect to avoid illuminating the unattractive background and angled to avoid lighting the interior of the pipe and to give a black background to the squat lobster." Taken in Loch Duich, Scotland
Mercury Tunnel, Runner Up, Black & White category: "My wife and I were visiting Cayman for the first time. We were mostly diving from a boat on this trip and heard a rumor about silversides making a short appearance near Devil's Grotto at Eden Rock. We gathered up all of our gear and rushed over to try out this shore dive and search for the tarpon and silversides. It is a rare event, but absolutely magical to witness. Hundreds of thousands of these tiny fish flow like mercury through the multiple swim throughs trying to avoid becoming dinner for the massive tarpon in the area. Much of the time my wife and I were unable to see one another due to the volume of the little fish. At this moment, a tunnel appeared between us and I was thrilled to capture the moment!" Taken in Eden's Rock, Grand Cayman
Gentle Giants, Winner, Wide Angle category: "At the very end of the day, this humpback whale was resting 15 meters down and allowed me to free dive centimetres away from her tail. I told my friend I wanted him to be part of the shot, but didn't need to ask the playful calf: He was very curious. From down there, the scene looked unreal and I'm glad that this photograph has captured this moment. Humpback whales are amazing and peaceful animals and I still can't believe they are still being hunted by mankind today." Taken in Saint-Gilles, Reunion Island
Paradise, Winner, Up & Coming category, Winner, Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2019: "Overwater, beautiful resorts and palm trees in super clear sky. Underwater, nearly one meter depth, colorful and untouched hard corals with some reef fishes. For the first dive here, I was running out of time for preparing ascent. And I request only diving this specific area for the nice split shots. I worked for about 30 minutes. I met two difficult points. Surface was not that calm because of the surrounding boat which made waves. Secondly my posture was really unstable in super shallow depth, surrounding hard corals for lifting my dome and getting right composition. Frankly, I was waiting gray reef shark and black-tip reef shark near here coming into this composition. I failed but I like this paradise." Taken in South Fakarava, French Polynesia.
Scatter!, Commended, British Waters Wide Angle category: "Diving with Guillemots at St Abbs has become one of my favourite trips since doing my first in 2008. That first trip was far from successful, but over the years, a group led by Ken Sullivan has worked hard with the skill of local skipper Paul Crowe of Dive St Abbs to learn the behaviour these fascinating and inquisitive little birds. When faced with danger, these poor fliers will descend and 'fly' away underwater. I came across a group of around 30 birds resting on the surface at the end of a gully. I waited for what felt like quite a time until a passing creel fishing boat spooked the birds and en masse they swam straight at me. This resulted in a sequence of seven shots as the melee ensued with birds swimming as fast as they could to reach the safety of open water. An unforgettable experience." Taken in St Abbs, Scotland.
Off the Wall, Winner, British Waters Wide Angle category: "Our dive group was on a private charter with Dive Scilly late last summer. The skipper dropped us on this lovely wall festooned with invertebrate life. I was keen to capture a good wide angle scenic featuring jewel anemones and a diver. When diving in the UK I've found the visibility is rarely good enough for making contrasty wide angle pictures, let alone including a model. On this occasion the offshore site afforded us with clear water. I took advantage of the opportunity, and encouraged my wife and model Paula to work her way into the frame. I took 20 shots in a series on this portion of the wall before settling on this image." Taken in Isles of Scilly, United Kingdom.
Hairy in the Sunrise, Winner, Compact category: "I woke up early in the morning to get a half and half shoot with a fisher boat and the Sunrise. This was the first picture. The second picture with the hairy frogfish I take on Laha 1. Here I was using a Inon S2000 with a snoot for the hairy. For the blue backlighting I used a colored fiberoptic snoot on a Inon Z240. To get the two pictures together I was using the double exposure setting in the camera." Taken in Ambon, Indonesia.
The Heat Run, Runner Up, Behavior category: "The heat run is the ultimate wildlife encounter, multiple whales competing for a female, the chase can last for hours or even days. Often many dolphin species are found moving with the Humpback groups. it is truly one of nature’s great events and is truly heart-thumping and adrenaline-pumping action to be a part of. On this day we jumped in with this group of 16 whales and 50 dolphins moving at high speed. trying to position ourselves in the right place was challenging to say the least, but after 25 or more drops in the water I was not only exhausted but managed to capture something amazing and something that not many people have experienced. After 16 years I have documented some of the most common and unusual behavior seen by Humpbacks in the region, but it is truly heart-thumping and adrenaline-pumping action to be a part of." Taken in Vavau, Tonga.
Lovely Legs, Runner Up, British Waters Living Together category: "Man-made structures, such as piers, are popular with underwater photographers as they are usually home to a wide variety of marine life in relatively shallow water. The legs provide a good surface for plant and animal life to cling to, which in turn provide shelter for fish and invertebrates. This pier, situated on the west coast of Scotland, is swept by nutrient-rich currents and the marine life is particularly prolific. It was fascinating to see how the marine life varied from one leg to another. Here, the feeding polyps of the soft coral Alcyonium digitatum surround a velvet swimming crab. I was pleased to be able to photograph this while the sun was setting, and the rays shining through the structure added the extra dimension I was looking for." Taken on the west coast of Scotland.