Hannah Le Leu, “Against All Odds” (2021), shot in Queensland, Australia, won third place in the Wide-Angle category of the Ocean Art 2021 Underwater Photography Competition. (all images courtesy the Underwater Photography Guide)

As everyone from Jacques Cousteau to Sebastian the (highly problematic) crab has noted, life under the sea is amazing. This point is underscored by the 2021 winners of the 10th Annual Ocean Art Underwater Photo Contest, which features stunning shots of life beneath the waterline. Photographers from 81 countries submitted thousands of images of their undersea (and freshwater) encounters, competing for some $35,000 in sponsored prizes.

“This year’s competition celebrates a decade in the search for the world’s best photos of marine life behavior, unique portraits of intriguing underwater critters, and images that instill an urgency for conserving our invaluable subsurface planet,” says a press release from the organizer, the Underwater Photography Guide. The contest continues to expand in scope, with a Black and White category debuting this year.

Tom St George, “Ancient Caves” (2021) won first place in the Black & White category. Shot in Cenote Zacil Ha, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Eduardo Acevedo, “Family” (2021), which won first place in the Wide-Angle category, depicts pilot whales in Tenerife Island, Canary Islands, Spain.
Nicolas Remy, “Shark Cave” (2021), the second place winner in the Wide-Angle category, shows grey nurse sharks shot in New South Wales, Australia.

The Wide-Angle category encompasses panoramic tableaux, including a first place win for Eduardo Acevedo, who captured a pod of pilot whales doubled in the surface reflection off the crystal-clear waters between Tenerife and La Gomera, in Spain’s Canary Islands. “Shark Cave” by Nicolas Remy features grey nurse sharks floating amidst swirling schools of feeder fish in New South Wales, Australia.

Third place in the category is Hannah Le Leu’s close portrait of a tiny green sea turtle that has made the improbable journey across the sandy beach to enter the waves. Above the aquamarine waterline, a Hitchcockian flock of seabirds pose just one menace to the baby turtles as they try valiantly to get to sea amidst a host of waiting predators.

Nigel Motyer, “Blenny Grabs A Quick Meal” (2021), shot in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, was the first place winner in the Macro category.
Sarah Vasend, “Social Distancing Lady Bug Style” (2021), second place in the Macro category, shot in Komodo, Indonesia.

The Macro category likewise exhibits high drama, but at a far different scale. Nigel Motyer took first place, presenting a blenny, one of nature’s mopiest-looking creatures, gazing down upon a microscopic reef-dweller that’s about to be its next meal. The hazy green waters of Komodo, Indonesia forced Sarah Vasend to do macro-shoots, leading to the happy image of two so-called “Ladybug Amphipods” seemingly waving at the camera from their perch on a red crinoid. And in Steven Walsh’s fourth-place photograph, the macro focus on a juvenile octopus hiding in an empty seashell creates an impressive magenta bokeh effect in the background lighting, the perfect magical stage setting for cephalopodic slight-of-hand(s).

Steven Walsh, “Magic Octopus” (2021), shot in Port Philip Bay, Australia, took fourth place in the Macro category.

Luc Rooman not only took first place in the Marine Life category with his close-up shot of two pike in the throes of a nighttime brawl, he also won Best in Show.

“This photograph was captured during a night dive in October at the dive site, Domein Muisbroek, near Antwerp, Belgium,” said the photographer, in a text that accompanied his entry. “To my surprise, I came across these fighting pike. I was lucky enough to photograph a whole series of pictures of these two pike.”

Luc Rooman, “Snoeken” (2021), took first place in Marine Life as well as Best of Show. Shot near Antwerp, Belgium.

The judges, Tony Wu, Mark Stickland, and Marty Snyderman, appeared to be particularly gripped by the nightlife of pike, as an honorable mention in the Marine Life category went to Lionel Houde, who captured two pike fighting, in an old quarry close to the Rhine near Strasbourg. No wonder these guys are always getting kicked out of (sand)bars.

Lionel Houde’s “Pike Dinner” (2021), shot in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, was the honorable mention in the Marine Life Behavior category.
Ilaria Mariaguilia, “Rizzuto La Luce Della Nascita” (2021) got second place in the Compact Behavior category. Shot in Rijeka, Croatia.

Across categories like Portrait, Cold Water, and Nudibranchs (don’t worry, these nudis are safe for work!), worldwide underwater photographers offer windows into the wild waters of our beautiful planet. The Conservation category has some bittersweet moments, as imagery offers reminders of the stark realities of human impact that increasingly threatens the sanctity and ecological viability of our oceans and freshwater environments. The second place image by Steven Kovacs featuring a lizardfish chomping down on a cigarette butt would be funny, if it weren’t evidence of the ways humanity affects everything around it.

Steven Kovacs, “Smoke Break” (2021), earned second place in the Underwater Conservation category. Shot in Blue Heron Bridge, Florida, USA.

“Fearing it would ultimately kill the unfortunate animal if it succeeded, I decided to intervene and take away its harmful meal choice,” said Kovcs. “Sadly, I think this photograph illustrates how people can negatively impact and harm the environment with even the smallest of actions.” (Although in fairness, the image was captured at Blue Heron Bridge, Florida, so it’s also possible that’s just how fish do things down in Florida.)

Tragedy notwithstanding, the 10th Annual Underwater Photo Contest is an amazing showcase of underwater photography, as well as a detailed primer on the right kind of gear to help those with an interest in the medium take to seas. Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me!

Celia Kujala, “Seaweed Toy” (2021), the second place winner in the Cold Water category, was shot in Lobster Shack, Coronado Islands, Mexico.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...