Renee Capozzola’s photograph of blacktip reef sharks cruising menacingly beneath sea gulls at sunset in French Polynesia has been crowned winner of Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021.
Capozzola’s photograph triumphed over 4,500 underwater pictures entered by underwater photographers from 68 countries around the world. She is the first female photographer to be named overall winner of the prestigious international photography contest.
We bring you some of our stand-outs from this year’s competition winners, and the stories behind them.
Overall Winner – Shark’s Skylight
To shoot “Sharks’ Skylight” Capozzola travelled from her home in California, out across the Pacific Ocean, to the tiny island of Moorea in August 2020. “French Polynesia strongly protects its sharks, it is my favourite place to photograph them,” she explains. “I dedicated several evenings to photographing in the shallows at sunset, and I was finally rewarded with this scene: glass-calm water, a rich sunset, sharks and even birds.”
Chair of the competition judges, Dr Alexander Mustard MBE, commented: “this is a photograph of hope, a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance, thriving with spectacular life both below and above the surface.”
“The photographer not only persevered until this serendipitous scene unfolded, but more importantly Renee had the talent to capture this precise moment. The gorgeous lighting is sympathetic, but the picture is made by the elegance of the composition as sharks, sunset and seabirds fleetingly converge.”
“Judging this year’s competition was a pleasure, a much-needed escape into the underwater world, I hope everyone enjoys immersing themselves in these fabulous images.”
Category Winner – Most Promising British Underwater Photographer
“As this shot was taken during cave training, we had a pretty intricate plan in place which is not usually how I run caves shoots. However, the plan failed miserably as the cave student, Max, had multiple equipment failures before even making it past the cavern zone.
“Plans are important, but when they fail you need to adapt quickly and deal with a new situation. After fixing all the issues on the surface and changing our plan to accommodate our now fairly depleted gas supplies, we descended again.
“I swam ahead and waited just beyond the beginning of the permanent mainline watching the team swim towards me, followed closely by the lighting assistants creating those beautiful halo effects. Suddenly everything just lined up perfectly, so I pressed the shutter just as Max turned to tie into the mainline.”
My Backyard Category Winner – While You Sleep
“Malls Mire – small woodland in Glasgow, between a housing estate, supermarket and factory – is an unlikely haven for wildlife. As winter thaws, for a few nights each year one of its small muddy ponds comes alive with Common Frogs.
“I first photographed them here in 2018 and since that day I’ve had this image in my head. It took another two years before I captured the little wonders that stir in the cold nights while the city sleeps.
“Using a temperamental remote shutter while combining long-exposure, backlighting, close-focus wide angle and split photography meant I had to abandon any frustrations and try (and inevitably fail) for the hundredth time to get it right. This final shot is a culmination 25 hours over 4 nights of lying in darkness, covered in mud, waiting on natures unpredictable elements to align. Time well spent? Absolutely.”
Wide-Angle Category Runner-Up – Gothic Chamber
“The riviera Maya in Mexico host the world’s largest underground river systems filled with clear water, never-ending tunnels and amazing halls with decoration that can compete with the best gothic cathedrals of the world.
“The challenge of capturing this beautiful hall in Cenote Monkey Dust was not only the huge dimensions but the fact that is pitch black.
“This photo is a x6 shot horizontal panorama stitching captured at 1/15 sec handheld at the usable limit of the camera ISO and diaphragm wide open to create an 86mpx panorama. My aim was to capture the scale, the tridimensionality of it, the richness of the formations and their incredible textures.”
Macro Category Winner – Pontohi Pigmy Seahorse
“Pontohi pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi) is one of the smallest and most recently discovered seahorses. They usually live on reef walls and can be hard to find.
“We had found two during the morning dive so I decided to dedicate the afternoon to getting a backlit photo. We were lucky to find this particular individual hanging out from the wall, allowing the use of a snoot to backlight it with the help of Rando, my dive guide.
“After setting up the camera and strobe we had to wait for it to get used to us and finally turn toward the camera for a brief moment.”
Macro Category Runner-Up – Larval Lionfish
“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.
“In the Atlantic Ocean, Lionfish are an invasive species and, unfortunately, finding the pelagic larvae is an all too common occurrence during these dives. This individual was exhibiting more beautiful coloration than usual and so I set out to try and 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 of time. I was very fortunate to be able to capture this particular individual in all its glory.”
Wrecks Category Winner – Bowlander
“Due to bad weather at Tiger Beach and in Bimini we had to look for shelter near Nassau in the Bahamas and do some regular dives. 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.”
Behaviour Category Runner-Up – Face-To-Face
“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, which is often referred to as 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.
“…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 honoured to share this charming moment.”
Compact Category Runner-Up – Rainbow Goby
“When I was underwater with this Hairy Panda Goby, he was very shy so it took a long time for it to be comfortable before it popped its head out. While waiting, I set up my coloured torches and align them to illuminate the coral, but not the goby.
“Then to produce a sharp picture of the goby I had to use another snoot with white light, so that it is recorded correctly and surrounded by all the colours.”
British Waters Wide Angle Category – Third Place – Grey Seal Gully
Photographer Kirsty Andrews:
“Grey seals are wonderful to photograph but I particularly like this shot because of the background. My buddy showed me this pretty gully full of dead man’s fingers and light coming down through kelp.
“I waited there for a little while, hoping a seal would turn up. In the end I only had one quick pass from one shy seal, but I was able to take this pleasing portrait.”
You can check out the complete gallery of winning images and runners-up on the UPY homepage