From a lemon shark sharing a toothy grin at dusk, to a green-blue mahi-mahi ambushing sardines, the 2024 Underwater Photographer of the Year (UPY) Awards showcase the stunning beauty and diversity of our world’s oceans.

Photographers from around the world submitted roughly 6,500 photographs for 13 contest categories that celebrate both technical craft and creative eyes—including the esteemed “Underwater Photographer of the Year” title, which honors an overall winner. In total, 130 photographs were distinguished with awards or commendations.

The competition is based in the United Kingdom, which, according to UPY, has a rich history of underwater photography contests. In 1965, the Brighton Underwater Film Festival was organized in the country for the first time. Two years later, the British Society of Underwater Photographers was founded, inspiring decades of undersea image-making.

“But since these only cater for underwater images of wildlife, 50 years after the original Brighton Festival, we decided to bring a dedicated and international underwater photography contest back to Britain,” per the UPY website. In addition to photos of animals, the contest honors images featuring wrecks, divers and human impact on the environment. The inaugural UPY Awards took place in 2014 and 2015.

Here are 15 otherworldly images of some of this year’s award winners and runners-up. UPY published the full winning gallery online.

Whale Bones by Alex Dawson

a diver in a wetsuit swims with her feet above her head over a seeming graveyard of whale bones illuminated by her torch and a bit of sunlight
A diver swims among whale bones in this photograph that won the Underwater Photographer of the Year award. © Alex Dawson / UPY2024

Local hunters in eastern Greenland use nearly every last part of the minke whales they kill, before pushing the carcasses down the beach, allowing high tide to pull their bones back into the North Atlantic Ocean.

Swedish photographer Alex Dawson imaged a diver in the frigid waters off Tasiilaq, Greenland, holding her breath as she explores the skeleton. The diver’s wetsuit and torch give the image what contest judge Peter Rowlands describes in a statement as a “‘visiting alien’ feel.”

“My buddy Anna von Boetticher… she’s brave enough to jump in a wetsuit in this minus-two degree water,” Dawson says in a video, speaking about the diver in the image. “She’s the tough one, I promise you.”

Twilight Smile by Rodolphe Guignard

the up-close nose and teeth of a shark, its body visible behind, at the top of the water, which forms a diagonal line across the image. above the water, a sunset of yellow, orange and purple is visible with dark clouds
At twilight, a lemon shark swims at the surface of the water. This image took third place in the contest's Marelux Wide Angle category. © Rodolphe Guignard / UPY2024

French photographer Rodolphe Guignard’s “face-to-face encounter” with a lemon shark off the island of Grand Bahama is a moody, terrifying moment in time, backdropped by the beauty of a sunset’s pastel swipes.

Guignard captured the image from the swim-step on a dive boat, partially submerging both his body and his camera to take a shot that included the view above and below the water’s surface.

“On this day the sea was rough, it was almost dark and the sharks were lively and very curious,” he says in a statement.

“The grin and the eye contact inject a sinister undercurrent to the picture,” says chair of the contest jury Alex Mustard in the statement.

March of the Tadpoles by Shane Gross

taken from below, dozens of tadpoles swim up and to the right with lily pads visible at the top of the water and their stems growing downward like tree trunks
Western toad tadpoles swim to the surface of a lake in search of algae to feed on in this highly commended image in the Marelux Wide Angle category. © Shane Gross / UPY2024

For several frigid hours snorkeling on Canada’s Vancouver Island, things “were not very exciting,” Canadian photographer Shane Gross says in a statement. But then, millions of western toad tadpoles began their migration from the lake’s depths to the lily pads and shallows above, to feed on the algae.

“My goal was to try and tell as much of the story as possible in one frame where we see, of course, the cute little animals, but also the lily pads and the forest-covered mountains in the background,” Gross adds in the statement.

Saving Goliath by Nuno Sá

taken from above, a whale lies immobile in shallow waters as 17 people try to push it, and others stand by watching
Beachgoers attempt to push a stranded and wounded sperm whale back into the water, highlighting threats to the marine mammals' survival. This image took home the Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year award. © Nuno Sá / UPY2024

On a warm April day, dozens of beachgoers near Lisbon, Portugal, were shocked to see a wounded sperm whale struggling to swim after it had been hit by a ship. The creature had become stuck on the sand, and they did their best to push its massive body back out to sea, to no avail. During their struggle—and the final hours of this whale’s life—Portuguese photographer Nuno Sá captured this scene, which played out near his home.

“This is a situation that tells a lot about how we are impacting the oceans,” Sá says in a video about the image. “Over 20,000 whales die of collisions with ships every year. If you think about the several species of whales that are known to last from 100 to 200 years, in their lifespan they’ve gone from an ocean of safety and silence to a chaos of noise and ocean pollution.”

For this photograph, Sá won the title of Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year, sponsored by the Save Our Seas Foundation.

An Abstract Portrait of a Potbelly Seahorse by Talia Greis

a seahorse with a red eye peers out from behind blurred, green coral
A potbelly seahorse peers out from behind blurred coral in this Macro category winner. © Talia Greis / UPY2024

Red, green and purple hues pop in Sydney’s murky waters, as a potbelly seahorse swims amid coral in this scene captured by Australian photographer Talia Greis.

“I was drawn to this particular seahorse because it had especially distinguished markings around the eye, and the jaw-dropping color palette made a striking contrast with the surrounding coral,” Greis says in a statement. “To me, the seahorse’s striking red eye and posture conveys power and strength, arising from the smoky underbelly of the ocean.”

The End of the Baitball by Rafael Fernandez Caballero

a whale with its mouth open gulps fish that had been swimming in a spherical formation
In this Behavior category-winning photograph, a Bryde's whale devours fish that had been swimming in a defensive bait ball formation. © Rafael Fernandez Caballero / UPY2024

In a final effort to survive, when fish are threatened by predators, they might swim in a spherical formation known as a bait ball. This strategy conceals most of the fish inside the ball and exposes as few as possible.

The El Niño weather phenomenon of 2023 turned Pacific Ocean waters warmer than usual, prompting many more animals than normal to hunt sardines in Mexico’s Magdalena Bay. These sardines worked together to form bait balls, and during this particular hunt, Bryde’s whales were “the stars of the show,” says Spanish photographer Rafael Fernandez Caballero in a statement.

“The photo shows the high-speed attack,” he adds in a separate statement, “with the whale engulfing hundreds of kilograms of sardines in one bite—simply unforgettable to see predation on such a scale.”

“Absolutely jaw dropping (pun intended),” adds contest judge Rowlands.

Aquatic Primate by Suliman Alatiqi

a monkey swims just below the surface of the water, its entire body and head submerged, one arm stretched forward
A macaque swims just below the water's surface in search of crabs. This image took third place in the Portrait category. © Suliman Alatiqi / UPY2024

While in Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands, Kuwaiti photographer Suliman Alatiqi observed this male macaque foraging for crabs.

“The macaques have adapted very well to living around the sea and will venture into the water for various reasons including transportation, scavenging, cooling down and playing,” he says in a statement. “Highly efficient swimmers, they can dive for up to half a minute and can cover short distances faster than most humans.”

Dolphins Portrait by Tetsuji Akimoto

two dolphins swimming, one upside-down, one with its mouth open and looking toward the camera
Two dolphins interact in the waters off Toshima Island, Japan, in this highly commended image in the contest's Portrait category. © Tetsuji Akimoto / UPY2024

During a mere ten-minute swim with dolphins off Japan’s Toshima Island, Japanese photographer Tetsuji Akimoto experienced “one of [the] most interesting behaviors I have captured during my observation of dolphins for over ten years,” he says in a statement.

“This pair came close to me several times for trying to get my attention, clearly wanting to interact.”

Kiss Me by Andrea Michelutti

two yellow fish, illuminated by a circular spotlight, appear to kiss as they swim past each other with their lips close together
Two scorpionfish swim past each other, appearing to kiss. This was a commended image in the Compact category. © Andrea Michelutti / UPY2024

In the “compact” category, meant to highlight wide-angle or macro photos shot with a compact camera, Italian photographer Andrea Michelutti was commended for a number of images. But perhaps none is more intimate than this portrait of two scorpionfish that appear to have their lips pressed together.

“The elliptical light, passing through the bodies of the subjects, gave exactly the atmosphere I was looking for,” Michelutti says in a statement. “Their seemingly affectionate behavior gives the photo a unique feeling.”

Window of Opportunity by Lisa Stengel

a school of fish swims away from a green and blue mahi mahi at its center, which has grabbed one fish in its mouth
A mahi mahi grabs a sardine as dozens of others swim rapidly away in this image that earned the title of Up and Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year. © Lisa Stengel / UPY2024

American photographer Lisa Stengel spent a week in Mexico’s Magdalena Bay looking for bait balls of fish on the defensive. She found this spectacular school of sardines—in the throes of a mahi mahi attack—by listening for commotion. Stengel noticed the sardines made a specific noise each time the mahi mahi went in to strike.

“If you listen, there’s an enormous amount of sound in the ocean,” she explains in a statement. “The action was too fast to see, so I honed in on the sound of the attacks with my camera to capture this special moment.”

Double pygmy by Byron Conroy

two pink seahorses cling to a round-looking fan coral
Two pygmy seahorses cling to coral that matches their bodies in a portrait that won third place in the Macro category. © Byron Conroy / UPY2024

Icelandic photographer Byron Conroy captured these two vibrant pygmy seahorses in Nudi Retreat, Lembeh, Indonesia. Using special gear and camera techniques, he illuminated the pair of animals and blurred the blue environment around them.

“Commonly photographed subjects have to be captured in a new way to catch the judges’ eye, and this is a perfect example,” contest judge Rowlands says in a statement. “Excellent use of lighting and movement to create a standout image with a dream-like quality.”

River Dolphin Surfaces in Amazon’s Mystic Depths by Olivier Clement

a pink river dolphin swims under the water, illuminated from above where a tree is visible
An Amazon river dolphin swims in dark waters in this highly commended image in the Up and Coming category. © Olivier Clement / UPY2024

In the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil, a Boto, or pink river dolphin, “emerges like a fleeting note in the dark, composing a visual symphony amidst the flooded forest,” says Canadian photographer Olivier Clement in a statement. No strobes nor bait were used to take this photograph, to cause as little a disturbance as possible.

“This dolphin seems to be dreaming of another world,” says contest judge Mustard in the statement.

Divebomb by Kat Zhou

six seabirds with yellow heads dive through the water, their bodies streamlined
Northern gannets plunge into the water to hunt in Shetland. This image won the British Waters Wide Angle category. © Kat Zhou / UPY2024

During one of six photography trips to the United Kingdom in the last year, American photographer Kat Zhou spent a week in Shetland, home to the country’s seventh-largest colony of northern gannets. In this photograph, they purposefully dive in search of food.

“Gannets are one of my favorite seabirds, and it was a really incredible experience to get to be in the water with them,” Zhou says in a video about the image. “It’s kind of like this chaotic adrenaline rush when they’re diving all around, and you never really know where to point your camera.”

Star Attraction by Jenny Stock

a tangle of colorful sea stars and one purple sea urchin against a black background
Brittle stars and a purple sea urchin lie in a Scottish loch. This photograph won the British Waters Macro category. © Jenny Stock / UPY2024

During a dive at dusk in Loch Leven, Scotland, photographer Jenny Stock of the U.K. was surprised to happen upon a “living carpet of thousands of brittle stars,” she says in a statement. As she moved around the area snapping photographs, she found this purple sea urchin, well-placed among the other creatures.

“A dominant star next to this graphic invertebrate created a beautifully balanced pair,” she adds, “perfectly surrounded by an entanglement of the background brittle stars.”

Grey Whale Connection by Rafael Fernandez Caballero

the eye of a whale looking right at the camera with sunlight through the water across its face
A grey whale stares into the camera with a seemingly human look in the winning image from the Portrait category. © Rafael Fernandez Caballero / UPY2024

Spanish photographer Rafael Fernandez Caballero, who also won the behavior category for his image of a whale attacking a bait ball, took home the portrait award for this photograph of the human-like eye of a grey whale.

When one of these massive mammals curiously swam up to his boat in Magdalena Bay in Mexico, he took over 1,000 photographs of it, he describes in a video. Only this single image, however, captured what he thought was a perfectly human look.

“These special moments highlight the beauty and intelligence of the whales, creating enduring memories for both observers and, surely, the curious whales themselves,” he says in a statement.

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