Ten Breathtaking Images From the 2021 Nature Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

The annual awards tell the story of our planet’s creatures and the threats they face

A handful of groupers swarm near a while cloud of gametes against black background
This year's overall winner Laurent Ballesta spent more than 3,000 hours trying to capture his stunning undersea image of mating groupers. Laurent Ballesta/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The winning images from this year’s prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards capture an up-close encounter with an elusive spider, a magical undersea kept forest, and a glimpse from a hungry grizzly at mealtime.

The 2021 award winners were revealed in an online ceremony held this week by the London’s Natural History Museum, which organizes the annual competition and hosts an exhibit of the winning images. The international panel of judges selected winning images from more than 50,000 entries from nearly 100 different counties. The competition, which has been running for 57 years, awards prizes in 19 categories of wildlife photography, including animal behavior, plants and fungi, and animal portraiture.

This year’s winners were chosen for “their artistic composition, technical innovation and truthful interpretation of the natural world,” according to London’s Natural History Museum.

The 2021 grand prize winner, French photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta, spent more than 3,000 hours trying to capture his stunning undersea image of mating groupers, reports Natasha Daly for National Geographic. Groupers—large, stout fish—mate just once a year for less than 30 minutes. Under the light of the full moon each July, the male and female fish each release a cloud of sperm or eggs. Ballesta and his team returned to the same lagoon in French Polynesia every year for five years to finally capture the image, which is titled “Creation.”

Ballesta’s photograph captures “a magical moment,” said Roz Kidman Cox, chair of the judging panel, in a press release. “It is surprising, energetic, and intriguing, and has an otherworldly beauty.”

The region of French Polynesia where Ballesta captured the image of the mating groupers, Fakarava Atoll, is a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that provides habitat to several threatened and endangered species, including vast coral reefs and bird species. Outside the reserve, however, overfishing and habitat loss pose a serious threat to the region’s wildlife.

The image is “a compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not address humanity's impact on our planet," said London's Natural History Museum director Doug Gurr.

Here are a few winning images that showcase the planet’s extreme places and creatures:

"Dome home," Winner of Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year

A spider clings to a web with colorful lights in the background
Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, ten-year-old Vidyun R. Hebbar of India, won the category for his photograph of a tent spider surrounded by the colorful lights of passing tuk-tuks. Vidyun R. Hebbar/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"Nursery meltdown," Winner of Oceans: Bigger Picture

aerial photo of pieces fractures sea ice dotted with seals
Jennifer Hayes took home the award for the first-ever “Oceans: Bigger Picture” category with her image of harp seals and their pups on fractured Arctic ice. Because harp seals rely on ice to breed and will delay births until the sea ice forms. As climate change shrinks sea ice cover, conservationists suspect future seal numbers are likely to be affected. Jennifer Hayes/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"Reflection," Winner of Animal Portraits

portrait of the face of a male gorilla, with closed eyes
Photographer Majed Ali of Kuwait claimed the "Animal Portraits" category with a photograph of Kibande, an almost-40-year-old mountain gorilla. Mountain gorillas are endangered due to habitat loss, disease, and poaching. Majed Ali/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"Grizzly leftovers," Winner of Animals in their Environment

A large brown grizzly bear looks at the camera while eating meat from elk bones
Zack Clothier captured his winning image of grizzlies picking apart the remains of a bull elk via a camera trap. The American photographer struggled to set up his camera because of meltwater and fallen trees, and says this was the final frame captured on his camera. Zack Clothier/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"The intimate touch," Winner of Behaviour: Birds

Two large black ravens with their bills open against white snow
Ravens, which are believed to mate for life, exchange objects like moss, twigs, and rocks as gifts to strengthen their relationships. To capture the details of the birds' interactions and their iridescent plumage, Canadian photographer Shane Kalyn laid on the frozen ground and patiently waited for the perfect moment. Shane Kalyn/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"Rich reflections," Winner of Plants and Fungi

Image of woman in purple wetsuit surrounded by kelp underwater
To capture his winning photograph, Justin Gilligan had to wait until the tides were just right. The image, which was captured in Lord Howe Island, shows marine ranger Caitlin Woods suspended in a lush underwater seaweed forest. Seaweed forests provide food and habitat for hundreds of species while helping pull carbon from the ocean. Justin Gilligan/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"Spinning the cradle," Winner of Behaviour: Invertebrates

A brown spider with a ball of white silk.
When photographer and entomologist Gil Wizen found a fishing spider under loose bark, he was careful not to spook the creature. "The action of the spinnerets reminded me of the movement of human fingers when weaving," Wizen says. Gil Wizen/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"Where the giant newts breed," Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles

two salamanders underwater surrounded by vegetation and greenish water.
João Rodrigues waited years to five in the lake found in northern Morocco, as the lake only emerges in years with exceptionally heavy rainfall. The courting sharp-ribbed salamanders he captured in his photograph use their pointed ribs as weapons, piercing through their own poisonous skin before stabbing them into an attacker. João Rodrigues/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

"Head to head," Behaviour: Mammals

Two reindeer bucks clash their large antlers in the snow
Italian photographer Stefano Unterthiner, a multi-award winner in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, returned with a striking image of two clashing reindeer. Bucks use their large antlers to establish dominance over other males during “rutting season.” Watching the fight, Unterthiner says he felt immersed in “the smell, the noise, the fatigue and the pain”. Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards

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