13 award-winning underwater photos reveal the magical worlds beneath the ocean's surface

© Karim Iliya/UPY2021‘A striped marlin in a high speed hunt in Mexico’ by Karim Iliya.

Every year, the Underwater Photographer of the Year competition recognises stunning photos of life below sea level. Talented photographers from around the world often brave rough waters, perilous dives, and close encounters with animals on the hunt to capture their shots.

The competition awards photos in categories such as “Behaviour,” “Portrait,” and “My Backyard,” as well as an overall winner.

Here are the winners of this year’s contest. You can view last year’s winners here.


The winner of the Macro category was “‘Pontohi pygmy seahorse” by Galice Hoarau.

© Galice Hoarau/UPY2021Location: Siladen, Indonesia.

“Pontohi pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi) is one of the smallest and most recently discovered seahorses,” Hoarau wrote. “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.”


Tobias Friedrich stumbled upon a photo-worthy sunken ship in “Bowlander,” winning him first place in the Wrecks category.

© Tobias Friedrich/UPY2021Location: The Bahamas.

“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,” Friedrich wrote. “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.”


First place in the Behaviour category went to “A striped marlin in a high speed hunt in Mexico” by Karim Iliya.

© Karim Iliya/UPY2021Location: Mexico.

“I went to Mexico to document these feeding frenzies, but was not expecting such a fast-paced hunt, almost too fast for my brain to process,” Iliya wrote. “For a brief moment, this scene unfolded before me and I had to rely on all my instincts and practice underwater to take this photo. I used natural light and stayed on the periphery of the bait-ball so as to try and minimise disturbance. Watching wild animals hunt is one of the greatest spectacles in nature.”


Diana Fernie won the Black and White category with “The Cut” after finding a woman she called “the perfect subject.”

© Diana Fernie/UPY2021Location: Solomon Islands.

“Having dived these waters on two previous occasions, I knew what to expect,” Fernie wrote. “However, I needed an elegant model as an essential element for this composition and my immediate companions could not be classified in any way as elegant! Fortunately, there was another photographer in my dingy group whose beautiful model wife was the perfect subject. Somewhat cheekily I managed to capture a few shots of her as she posed for her husband!”


“Doule (Kuhlia Rupestris) near the surface” took first place in the Compact category.

© Jack Berthomier/UPY2021Location: New Caledonia.

“Such a much deserved winner of this compact category,” contest judge Martin Edge wrote about this photo. “The author has made the carp stand out against a colourful background of yellow, greens and reds. The hint of colour in the sky sets this image off to perfection.”


“Guardian Deity” by Ryohei Ito won the Portrait category.

© Ryohei Ito/UPY2021Location: Japan.

“As the Asian sheepshead wrasse grows older, it changes sex from female to male and at the same time it develops a large lump on its head,” Ito wrote. “I thought about the lighting and composition so that the image of the bump and the powerful face could be conveyed, and challenged many times. He lives in a shrine under the water and looks just like a guardian deity.”


The British Waters Macro winner was “Portrait of a variable blenny” by Malcolm Nimmo.

© Malcolm Nimmo/UPY2021Location: Plymouth Sound, UK.

“This particular blenny was standing out proud on a reef ledge, making it an ideal subject,” Nimmo wrote. “The image was captured using snooted lighting to emphasise only the face of the blenny, with the snooted light being positioned from above the head enhancing the facial features.”


In “SS Hispania,” Kirsty Andrews captured a wreck completely covered in anemones and sponges. The photo won the British Waters Living Together category.

© Kirsty Andrews/UPY2021Location: Sound of Mull, UK.

“This wreck truly has become an artificial reef: the wreck attracts the wildlife and both wreck and wildlife attract the divers,” Andrews wrote. “Every inch of metal is covered in anemones, seaweeds or sponges, orange and white.”


“Sunrise Mute Swan Feeding Underwater” by Ian Wade won first place in the British Waters Compact category. He captured it with the help of a GoPro.

© Ian Wade/UPY2021Location: UK.

“I had been watching a couple of Mute Swans at my local lake,” Wade wrote. “They seemed to be following people around looking for food. I decided to attach a small weight to the back of my GoPro and threw it into the lake a short distance from me … The GoPro hitting the water had attached the swan’s interest and they swam over. I waited until one of the swans was in the correct position and with its head underwater and shot a high-speed burst of images enabling me to capture this picture.”


Using a drone, Karim Iliya captured “Aerial view of a crowded island in Guna Yala” and won the Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year award.

© Karim Iliya/UPY2021Location: off the coast of Panama.

“I had come to this region of Panama to photographing the art of making mola, the traditional clothing that the Guna people wear,” Iliya wrote. “While waiting on a boat I flew my drone over this island to get this aerial perspective and give more impact to the image than I could have shooting at sea level or from underwater.”


Mark Kirkland needed a lot of patience to capture “While You Sleep.” It won the British Underwater Photographer of the Year award and first place in the “My Backyard” category.

© Mark Kirkland/UPY2021Glasgow, Scotland.

“This final shot is a culmination 25 hours over four nights of lying in darkness, covered in mud, waiting on natures unpredictable elements to align,” Kirkland wrote. “Time well spent? Absolutely.”


SJ Alice Bennett was named the Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year and Most Promising British Underwater Photographer with her photo “Tying In.”

© Alice Bennett/UPY2021Location: Tulum, Mexico.

“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,” Bennett wrote. “Suddenly everything just lined up perfectly, so I pressed the shutter just as Max turned to tie into the mainline.”


Renee Capozzola was named the 2021 Underwater Photographer of the Year for her stunning photo entitled “Sharks’ Skylight.”

© Renee Capozzola/UPY2021Location: French Polynesia.

“I envisioned and aimed to capture the sharks underwater with the sunset seen through Snell’s window,” Capozzola wrote. “It took many attempts, but on this one particular evening, the water was calm, the sunset was vibrant, and I got extremely lucky with the composition as well. Since many shark species are threatened with extinction throughout the world, it is my hope that images of these beautiful animals will help promote their conservation.”

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