Photo of rare pink river dolphin wins Underwater Photographer of the Year
An eye-catching photo of a pink river dolphin breaching the surface of the Amazon river sees Kat Zhou from the United States named Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023. Zhou’s photo ‘Boto Encantado’ perfectly frames this endangered species, whose numbers are falling year on year, by photographing it simultaneously above and below the surface at sunset.
“There’s a legend among locals that river dolphins, or ‘botos’, can transform into handsome men known as ‘boto encantado’ to seduce women,” says Kat. “Though I did not witness the transformation, I was enchanted by these beautiful mammals in a different way.” Underwater Photographer of the Year is an annual competition based in the UK that celebrates photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes, rivers, and even swimming pools. Here are the rest of the winning images.
Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
‘Boto encantado’ – Kat Zhou (United States)
There’s a legend among locals in the Amazon that river dolphins, or “botos”, can transform into handsome men known as “boto encantado” at night to seduce women. Though I did not witness this elusive boto transformation, at dusk, I was enchanted by these beautiful mammals in a different way. After seeing how botos sometimes bring their beaks above water, I knew I wanted a split shot at sunset. Though the water was so dark that I was shooting blind, this dolphin gave me a perfect pose and smile!
As indigenous communities settled by rivers in the Amazon, river dolphins began living closer to human populations, even making use of food scraps. Frequent dolphin sightings led to tales like boto encantado, but there’s a darker side to the legend, as it was often used to excuse pregnancies after women were assaulted or forced into prostitution. While botos are generally revered as mythical creatures, many scorned husbands have killed dolphins because of these stories. Furthermore, many river dolphins have also been killed for use as fish bait. Though there have been bans on this practice, it has not been eradicated. With this, alongside even more significant impacts like mercury poisoning due to the gold mining industry and large development projects that have disrupted the river ecosystems, I fear that one day botos will truly become no more than mythical creatures.
British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
‘The swarm’ – Ollie Clarke (Australia)
The whale sharks on the Ningaloo are often accompanied by bait balls like this one, where the small fish use the shark as a floating shelter. However, this one was huge, much denser, and with a lot more fish than usual, so I was excited to photograph it. The shark almost looked as if it was getting fed up with the small fish, and it was attempting to shake off the swarm. It would make steep dives and then ascend again right away thrashing its tail, but the fish would just swirl even more densely around the poor shark, who would have barely been able to see through the bait-ball! I was hoping to spend a bit of time photographing this shark, but after some ups and downs, he disappeared into the depths of the Indian Ocean, an encounter I’ll never forget.
Most Promising British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2023
‘An island’s wild seas’ – Theo Vickers (United Kingdom)
Sunlight beats down through a marine jungle of Himanthalia algae on the chalk reefs of the Needles Marine Conservation Zone. The purple-tipped tentacles of Snakelocks anemones (Anemonia viridis) rise up from the forest floor. Striking rock formations, the Needles on the Isle of Wight attract close to 500,000 visitors annually. Yet, like many of Britain’s marine habitats, the beauty and biodiversity of the island’s chalk reefs that lie below, from nudibranchs and rays to cuttlefish and cuckoo wrasse, are largely unknown to most. Exploring the shallower reefs on a summer evening, my mission was to capture a wide-angle image that documented this stunning local habitat, combining both the towering forests above and the anemones that rule the chalk seabed below. After several unsatisfying attempts, I stumbled upon this gully packed with Snakelocks and, sinking into the forest beneath, found the composition I had been seeking.
‘Save Our Seas Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2023
‘Hopeless’ – Alvaro Herrero (Mekan) (Spain)
A humpback whale dies a slow, painful, and agonizing death after having its tail entangled in ropes and buoys, rendering its tail completely useless. This a reflection of what not only our oceans are suffering but also our planet, the product of man’s selfishness and lack of responsibility. Taking this photograph was, for me, the saddest moment I’ve experienced in the ocean. Especially because I have spent so much time with humpbacks underwater, experiencing eye contact and interactions and seeing with my own eyes how they are sentient and intelligent beings. But I’m “happy” to be able to capture that moment and show the world what is happening and what we are doing. I really hope this image makes us aware, opens our eyes, and drives us to make fundamental changes.
Marelux Wide Angle Winner
‘Fade’ – J. Gregory Sherman (United States)
My dive partner and I chartered a boat to arrive at Stingray City on Grand Cayman before dawn so as to capture the morning light and undisturbed sand ripples. Just as the sun broke the horizon, a line of southern stingrays headed straight for me, and I captured this image as they glided across the sand. Using a large dome port allowed me to create a split image showing the intensely colorful dawn sky contrasted against the nearly monochromatic stingrays and sand beneath the surface chop.
Marelux Macro Winner
‘Unsung’ – Shane Gross (Canada)
Walking along a rocky shoreline, we would peer under rocks using a probe lens and my camera’s LCD screen to check for plainfin midshipman nests. Once found, I would lay on top of the barnacle-covered rocks, cutting my elbows, trying to compose images of fish most people have never heard of despite having one of the most interesting lifecycles of any animal. Plainfin midshipman are deep-water fish that travel to the intertidal zone to spawn. The males sing to attract females, and she will lay as many eggs as his singing deserves before moving on to the next singer. Now, the male has a chance to fertilize the eggs, but only if he is not beaten to the punch by a sneaker male who looks like a female. The singer male will then guard the nest, never knowing the kids may not be his. Drama!
‘Engine with a saddle’ – Brett Eldridge ( United States)
We were out scanning targets in June when we saw a very small but promising sonar blip 230 feet deep. I geared up and jumped in, hoping for something special. After some searching, my heart started racing when I first saw fish, then the propeller of an almost completely intact, single-engine WW II airplane! It turned out to be an F8F-1 Bearcat, a rare aircraft that Neil Armstrong famously said was his favorite and has been described as “An Engine With a Saddle.” Alone on the first dive with limited bottom time, I took enough photos to build a “draft” model and identify the wreck. Needing a better photogrammetry model for the UPY contest and with deadlines quickly approaching, I booked December 19 and crossed my fingers. We, fortunately, had epic conditions, and I got the photos I needed. It was my last dive of 2022.
‘Make love not war’ – Yury Ivanov (Indonesia)
A couple of coconut octopuses “making love” (mating). I knew that I could find this species of Octopus at one of the dive sites near Tulamben village (Bali, Indonesia), and they are active only at night time in that place. I dive there only after 7 pm, hoping to photograph something unique – their mating. I’ve done more than 30-night dives at the dive site and finally got lucky. The photo shows the end of their love.
‘The trunk’ – Suliman Alatiqi (Kuwait)
The elephant’s trunk is one of the most distinctive anatomical features in the natural world, and this photo aims to emphasize it. Luckily, he was curious about my camera and was happy to feel it out, which gave me the opportunity to capture this perspective despite otherwise bad conditions for an over-under photo (choppy water and poor visibility). In my first attempts, the nostrils were not fully lit because of how close they were to the lens (which was necessary for the intended photographic effect). So I returned at a specific time window when I thought the sun’s angle would be optimal and managed to fully light the nostrils. This added a lot more detail to the key part of the image, without which the photo would not be as effective.
Black and White
‘El Blanco – The White One’ – Don Silcock (Australia)
The image was taken on the last morning of a five-day trip to Peninsula Valdés in Argentina, in August 2022, under a special permit to enter the water with the Southern Right Whales that gather there between June and December each year.
The mother, who can be seen in the background, accepted our presence and allowed the calf to interact with us. It was very playful but careful not to hit us with it’s tail and seemed to be really enjoying it all – almost as much as we were!
White calves are very rare and referred to locally as “El Blanco” or the white one! Peninsula Valdés is an incredibly important safe haven, and breeding ground for the Southern Right Whales of the southern Atlantic, and Argentina has done an excellent job of managing it. It was, without a doubt, my best-ever underwater experience!
‘Klunzinger’s wrasse in motion’ – Enrico Somogyi (Germany)
When I was snorkeling in Marsa Alam, I saw countless Klunzinger’s Wrasses. One of them was particularly curious and very interested in my lens. I was able to take some good classic wide-angle pictures. After a while, I figured it would be a good idea to try a long exposure. So I set my camera to the smallest aperture, f11, the ISO value to 64, and the exposure time to 1/13s. For this picture, I moved the camera forward a bit while the shutter was released. This created the zoom effect in the lower part of the image. I was very happy with the result.
British Waters Macro
‘Egg eaters’ – Kirsty Andrews (United Kingdom)
I have long admired others’ pictures of nudibranchs feeding on the egg coils of other nudibranch species across the world. I’d also seen this nudibranch species, Favorinus branchialis, before, and I knew that it fed in this way, but never seen it in action until recently. I was, therefore, thrilled to find three large specimens feeding on a big coil of eggs in Shetland, Scotland. The eggs were several inches across, in a wide spiral, so the challenge was to isolate an appealing composition of eggs and nudibranchs.
British Waters Living Together
‘Pipe reef’ – Dan Bolt (United Kingdom)
We were initially interested in this site in Loch Fyne for the fields of Firework Anemones, but of equal interest was an old pipe that had this patterned concrete protective covering along its length. This shallow artificial reef was home to many different species, including some large Langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus), who were seemingly unperturbed by my presence.
British Waters Compact
‘Crack rock blenny’ – Tony Reed (United Kingdom)
I had been going back to this spot on Crack rock to capture the variable Blenny for several weeks. He was caring over his eggs inside the crevice, so I was trying to capture the point when the eggs were hatching. Being such an inquisitive little chap, he was always moving around, getting closer to the camera until he got to this point where I took a few shots. I didn’t stay too long as I didn’t want to have any negative or detrimental effects on the parenting behavior. It has been great to see an increase in the Variable Blenny around Torbay over the past couple of years.
You can see all of the winning images and runners-up on the Underwater Photographer of the Year website.
Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe