Deep underwater, the camera’s flash captures an explosion of new life. Two groupers, just mated, exit a cloud of eggs and sperm in the Fakarava Atoll, part of French Polynesia. The mating is so rare and so fleeting that it happens only once a year, for about 30 minutes, around the full moon in July. Photographer Laurent Ballesta spent 3,000 hours trying to capture it.
For his photograph of this extraordinary phenomenon, called “Creation,” Ballesta, a frequent National Geographic photographer, has won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year, awarded today by London’s Natural History Museum, which organizes the competition annually and displays an exhibit of the winners.
The photograph, called “Creation,” 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.”
Museum director Doug Gurr called the photograph “a compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not address humanity's impact on our planet.”
The Fakarava Atoll, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve protected from commercial activities, is home to several threatened and endangered species. Here, the marbled grouper, which is threatened due to large-scale fishing, is safe—from humans at least. During grouper mating season, hundreds of gray reef sharks come out at night to feed on the nearly two-foot-long fish, whose conservation status is unknown, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which evaluates the global conservation status of species.
Aside from knowing that the mating would happen around the full moon in June or July, Ballesta had no way to predict the timing, which meant that he had to maximize his time underwater. In 2014, he created a dive protocol—the first of its kind— that would allow him to spend a full 24 hours 65 feet under the ocean while limiting the amount of time it takes to decompress. The feat required careful calibration to come up with the exact right mix of gases in his oxygen tank, a dedicated dive team, and a large degree of mental fortitude, he says.
His carefully planned strategy worked. While swimming among thousands of marbled grouper and hundreds of gray reef sharks without the perceived protection of a shark cage or a metal shark suit, “it took time to develop the intuition that we would not get bitten,” Ballesta told National Geographic in 2018. “We had to feel confident enough that when they bump up against us, so hard that sometimes we have bruises, we have to keep calm. They are considering us as obstacles, not prey.” (See more of Ballesta’s work to document this surreal phenomenon in National Geographic’s story.)
The competition, which is in its 57th year, awards 19 categories of wildlife photography, including behavior, photojournalism, and portraiture. This year, the competition received 50,000 entries from photographers around the world. Judges looked for innovation, narrative, and technical skill. (See last year’s winners here.)
Ten-year-old Vidyun R. Hebbar of India won Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the competition’s other top distinction, for his up-close photograph of a tent spider, bathed in the lights and rainbow colors of a passing rickshaw.
Two other frequent National Geographic photographers were also honored. Jennifer Hayes won the “Oceans: Bigger Picture” category for her image of harp seals and their newborn pups on fractured Arctic ice. The “bigger picture” categories, new this year, honors photography that shines a light on crucial ecosystems, such as the Arctic's shrinking sea ice, which harp seals rely on to breed. It took Hayes hours of searching by helicopter to find the winning scene, which she describes as “a pulse of life that took your breath away."
Brent Stirton won the photojournalism story category for his work to document chimpanzees and their caregivers at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center, in South Africa, which rescues and rehabilitates primates orphaned by poaching. The babies are often sold, sometimes for pets. “As a result,” Stirton writes on Instagram, “many of these chimps have lived lives of isolation, suffering, and cruelty.” At Lwiro, more than a hundred young chimps are given one-on-one care to ease their psychological and physical trauma. (See the full National Geographic story here.)
“These dedicated caregivers raise the baby chimps like their own children,” Stirton writes.