Extraordinary underwater scene wins Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021

French underwater photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta was announced as this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his enigmatic image, Creation, that captures camouflage groupers exiting their milky cloud of eggs and sperm in Fakarava, French Polynesia. Selected from more than 50,000 entries from 95 countries, the winners of the prestigious Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition were revealed at an online awards ceremony.

A winning image takes great dedication, and every year, for five years, Laurent and his team returned to the same lagoon. They dived day and night so as not to miss the annual spawning that only takes place around the full moon in July. After dark, they were joined by hundreds of grey reef sharks, hunting the groupers in packs. Overfishing threatens this vulnerable species, but here the fish are protected within a special biosphere reserve.

The image works on so many levels. It is surprising, energetic, and intriguing and has an otherworldly beauty. It also captures a magical moment – a truly explosive creation of life – leaving the tail-end of the exodus of eggs hanging for a moment like a symbolic question mark.

– Rosamund ‘Roz’ Kidman Cox OBE

The image draws attention to the challenges we face as a planet in terms of climate change. “In what could be a pivotal year for the planet, with vital discussions taking place at COP15 and COP26, Laurent Ballesta’s Creation is a compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not address humanity’s impact on our planet,” says the Museum director Dr Doug Gurr. “The protection provided to this endangered species by the biosphere reserve highlights the positive difference we can make.”

Dome home by Vidyun R Hebbar, India Winner, 10 Years and Under, Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The winner of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the year was awarded to 10-year-old Vidyun R Hebbar for his striking image Dome home, of a tent spider as a tuk-tuk passes by. Vidyun was first featured in the competition when he was just eight years old and loves to photograph the often-overlooked creatures that live in the streets and parks near his home in the city of Bengaluru, India.

“It is a great reminder to look more closely at the small animals we live with every day,” says Dr Natalie Cooper, a researcher with the Natural History Museum and jury member, “and to take your camera with you everywhere. You never know where that award-winning image is going to come from.”

The other images are, as always, also outstanding, and offer a unique perspective on the wildlife both close to us in the form of a terrifying poisonous spider under the bed, to a comical grizzly bear breaking the fourth wall and looking straight into a camera trap. Here are some of the winning images from the other categories.

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

© Zack Clothier, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Animals in their Environment category was  won by Zack Clothier, with this unusual image of a grizzly bear taken with a camera trap set up. 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.

Reflection by Majed Ali, Kuwait
Winner, Animal Portraits

© Majed Ali, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Majed trekked for four hours to meet Kibande, an almost-40- year-old mountain gorilla. ‘The more we climbed, the hotter and more humid it got,’ Majed recalls. As cooling rain began to fall, Kibande remained in the open, seeming to enjoy the shower.

The intimate touch by Shane Kalyn, Canada
Winner, Behaviour: Birds

© Shane Kalyn, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Shane Kalyn captured a raven courtship display. Ravens probably mate for life and this couple exchanged gifts – moss, twigs and small stones – and preened and serenaded each other with soft warbling sounds to strengthen their relationship or ‘pair bond’. Shane lay on the frozen ground using the muted light to capture the detail of the ravens’ iridescent plumage against the contrasting snow to reveal this intimate moment when their thick black bills came together.

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

© Stefano Unterthiner, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

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.

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

© Jennifer Hayes, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

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. 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 Hayes.

The spider room by Gil Wizen, Israel/Canada
Winner, Urban Wildlife

© Gil Wizen, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Gil Wizen found a venomous Brazilian wandering spider hiding under his bed. After noticing tiny spiders all over his bedroom, Gil looked under his bed. There, guarding its brood, was one of the world’s most venomous spiders. Before safely relocating it outdoors, he photographed the human-hand-sized Brazilian wandering spider using forced perspective to make it appear even larger.
Winner, Photojournalism

© Adam Oswell, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Adam Oswell drew 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.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. The images will be displayed alongside insights from Natural History Museum scientists at the Natural History Museum, London, opening on 15 October 2021, before touring across the UK and internationally to venues in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, USA and more.