Photograph by Greg Lecoeur
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In this 2016 National Geographic Nature Photograph of the Year, Cape gannets dive among dolphins to catch sardines as they migrate.

Photograph by Greg Lecoeur

He Left Everything–And Became Our Nature Photographer of the Year

Greg Lecoeur sold his company and left home to dive around the world.

Greg Lecoeur’s stunning photograph of a sardine run won National Geographic’s Nature Photographer of the Year contest, beating out thousands of other entries. Lecoeur is originally from Nice, France, but now lives a nomadic life, diving and photographing the underwater world.

I took this image during the winter months in South Africa, capturing a natural phenomenon known as the sardine run.

Millions of sardines migrate from their natural habitat in Cape Agulhas to the southern part of KwaZulu-Natal, along the Wild Coast of South Africa. The mass formed by the migration of millions of sardines can stretch over several kilometers and be observed from space. It is an event that draws many predators.

In June 2015, I went to Port St. Johns for the first time. I went offshore with a diver and a skipper. I went out every day for two weeks, searching for signs of the migration. Conditions had to be perfect, and there was probably a whole week I didn’t dive at all.

One day, though, the ocean was full of energy. We were escorted by hundreds of dolphins. From a point on the horizon ahead of us, the frantic sounds of gannet birds became louder and their dives from the air seemed to accelerate as they shot down, piercing the surface of the sea.

Our dive boat headed toward the vortex of seabirds in the air, our adrenaline pumping. The hunt for sardines was on.

Before jumping into the water, I could not have imagined the incredible spectacle that would unfold beneath the surface.

My scuba gear on, I jumped in the water and swam to the school of sardines, known as a bait ball.

Underwater, it was chaos. The first things I observed were the sardines’ scales, the bubble and song of dolphins, and several explosions announcing the impact of the birds perforating the surface.

The dolphins launched their assault, rushing into the sardines right before my eyes. Like lightning, crazy gannet birds pierced the surface, reaching a depth of about 30 feet. They would then begin a disorderly swim to catch several fishes in the same dive.

The action was fast, but I was able to capture several images per second using continuous exposure.

Each year, the sardine run is more and more unpredictable, possibly due to overfishing or warming waters. In my view, as a passionate marine biology photographer, this underwater predation is the most exciting and powerful behavior to witness in nature.

Underwater Teamwork

All the region’s predators seemed to have gotten the same invitation, including hundreds of sharks, tuna, sailfish, sea lions, and sometimes Bryde’s whales. Today, they formed one team, working together to hunt the sardines.

The dolphins are really the guides. In addition to showing us where the sardines are, the dolphins signal to each other when they are about to hunt. You can hear them communicating in the water.

They have developed special hunting techniques using their sonar skills and bubble streams to locate and isolate a ball of sardines in the outgoing tide.

Think of the sardine run as a train. There is an entire train of sardines, several kilometers long, and this is just one car of the train. The dolphins come in and push one car off the train, trying to isolate one bait ball.

I was very lucky to be there. I could hear the dolphins coming, circling around the bait ball.

Then, I heard the birds’ song. This was the most incredible thing for me. They anticipate the dolphins, and when they hear the dolphins give their signal, they decide to dive.

It took me three or four times to understand what was happening, that the birds would dive after they heard the dolphins. After that, I knew what to expect and could photograph the birds as they dove.

Many seabirds, including albatrosses, terns, and cormorants, prey on the bait ball, but the Cape gannets are the king of the group. With remarkable eyesight, the gannets follow the dolphins before diving in a free fall from a hundred feet high, piercing the surface of the water headfirst at a speed of 50 miles an hour. They dive as deep as 30 feet to get their fill of sardines before returning to the surface.

This type of sardine is the best to photograph because, when confronted by predators, they don’t move. Their instinct is to swim down as a group, but the dolphins keep them at the surface.

Sharing the Sea

My life is discovering other things underwater. Growing up, I fell in love with the Mediterranean Sea. (Learn about diving in the Mediterranean.)

I ran a company, but I was working every day. I had money, but I didn’t have time to play in the sea. So I sold my company; I sold my car; I sold my boat. I left my apartment, and I found someone to take care of my dog.

I traveled one year with just my backpack and my camera. I started to publish my story in diving magazines, and it went from there. For three or four years now, I have been doing only diving, spending all my time in water and with nature.

Winning this award is very important to me. When I sold my company six years ago, I had no idea this would happen.

I am also very happy because an underwater photograph won the contest. We are trying to find other planets, but we have only explored maybe 10 or 20 percent of the world’s oceans.

The marine world is full of life, and it is difficult to access for most of the world. It is very important to me to share my world with these people.

It is very important to me to share what I see with my lens.