Tianhong Wang/Ocean Art
Most of the world is water, and we humans miss out on a lot of the action that happens there.
Luckily, photographers across the globe dive with their cameras to document the creatures we don’t get to see. The Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition has recognized their best work for the last eight years.
The most recent round of awards showcase the beauty and drama of marine life, from playful sea lions to fish that seek shelter in the arms of jellyfish.
The contest’s judges reviewed thousands of images from 78 countries. They picked a first-place photo for each of the competition’s 16 categories, which award images that showcase various types of creatures or utilize certain photography techniques. The winning images reveal a twig full of baby seahorses, some masters of camouflage caught red-handed, and creatures trying (and sometimes failing) to live with garbage. Many of the runner-up images are just as stunning or bizarre, though.
Here are the 16 winning photos along with 16 of our other favorites from the contest.
A photo of a crab-eater seal diving beneath Antarctic ice won Best of Show.
Greg Lecoeur/Ocean Art
Despite their name, these seals eat mostly krill, not crabs. Photographer Greg Lecoeur spotted this one near the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the continent.
Other winning photos showed smaller life forms, like these clownfish eggs.
Paolo Isgro/Ocean Art
Photographer Paolo Isgro spotted them at a scuba-diving site in Tulamben, Indonesia.
A rare shot of pink whip rays riding on a small-eyed ray near Queensland, Australia won the Marine Life Behavior category.
Paula Vianna/Ocean Art
Scientists think the small rays do this to save energy, protect themselves from predators, and eat leftovers from the larger rays. Paula Vianna saw the rays near an Australian shipwreck site.
In the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt, another winning photo captured a different pair of fish friends: a grouper and a cleaner wrasse.
Ferenc Lorincz/Ocean Art
The small cleaner wrasse eats parasites, dead skin, and extra food off the grouper — a win-win situation.
Six rowdy seahorse babies pointed their faces in the same direction just long enough for novice photographer Jules Casey to snap a shot.
Jules Casey/Ocean Art
“I’m absolutely delighted to be able to share such a split second in time before this scene changed dramatically,” Casey wrote of the photo.
Nudibranchs, a vast group of marine mollusks sometimes called sea slugs, get their own contest category.
Jenny Stock/Ocean Art
The winning photo shows a bright purple “flabellina lotus” in Australia’s Mooloolah River, which hosts over 350 species of nudibranch.
Coral reefs, like the Indonesian one shown here, offer endless opportunities for underwater photographers.
Eduardo Acevedo Fernandez/Ocean Art
The image that took first place in the Reefscapes category shows a school of tiny glass fish flowing over a handful of ribboned sweetlips.
This pair of lemon goby parents watched over eggs that they’d laid on a piece of discarded glass.
Stan Chen/Ocean Art
“I decided to take shot to record this because it presented how fish can coexist with human garbage,” photographer Stan Chen wrote.
Warning: The next image shows a dead animal, so it may be disturbing to some readers.
But garbage is generally harmful to marine life. The winner of a new category, Conservation, was this haunting image of a long-dead sea turtle tangled in fishing line.
Shane Gross/Ocean Art
Photographer Shane Gross said his diving partner came to him in tears after encountering the dead sea turtle.
“She didn’t have time to remove the line, so she told me where it was and I went back. I didn’t want any scavengers to also become entangled,” Gross wrote in his contest entry. “I took my camera because images like this can become warnings for the future.”
Another new category, Blackwater, encouraged photographers to go diving at night. That’s when this young snaketooth fish made an appearance.
Fabien Michenet/Ocean Art
According to photographer Fabien Michenet, snaketooths begin their lives near the surface, then spend adulthood in deep-sea sediment.
This yellow crested weedfish hid in the kelp at Shelly Beach, Australia. Snapping this expert camouflager required patience.
Talia Greis/Ocean Art
“Its movements sway like the seaweed it buries itself in, its color almost identical, making it the ultimate master of disguise,” photographer Talia Greis wrote. “The only way to capture this moment was to hang back, remain still, and wait for the perfect moment it decided to surface and analyze my presence.”
Seahorses were popular photo subjects.
Stephano Cerbai/Ocean Art
This little guy lives near Puerto Galera in the Philippines.
This seahorse photo won first place in the Portraits category.
Virginia Salzedo/Ocean Art
“I was immediately surprised by his punk hairstyle,” photographer Virginia Salzedo wrote.
Seahorses also took the spotlight in the contest’s Underwater Art category.
Francisco Sedano/Ocean ArtRibboned sweetlips, meanwhile, seemed to be a popular school to capture on camera.
George Kuo-Wei Kao/Ocean ArtPhotographer Nicholas More said a shot of this school of ribboned sweetlips was “at the top” of his wish list.
Nicholas More/Ocean Art
“To allow the sweetlips to be center of attention, I used a slow shutter speed and accelerated panning to blur the background,” More wrote. “This effect also helps to reinforce the unity of the school moving as a group, in the same direction.”
Though the following images didn’t win first place in any category, they’re just as captivating and surprising.
Aîa Mar/Ocean ArtPhotographer Pedro Carillo Montero caught these young sea lions playing under a rock ledge. In this image, he wrote, they almost look like they’re singing.
Pedro Carillo Montero/Ocean ArtPredators on the prowl made for awe-inspiring images. Photographer Emry Oxford saw this crocodile in Cuba.
Emry Oxford/Ocean ArtGannets plunge arrow-like into the sea to catch fish.
Johan Sundelin/Ocean ArtPhotographer Dave Johnson took a picture of this banded sea snake as it rested alone in the sand in Indonesia’s Lembeh Strait.
Dave Johnson/Ocean ArtDevil rays in the Sea of Cortez move in large groups, flapping their fins like birds’ wings.
Jason Clue/Ocean ArtThis curious leopard shark kept approaching photographer Jake Wilton. The species is rarely aggressive toward humans.
Jake Wilton/Ocean ArtPhotographer Fabien Martinazzo captured this pelagia noctiluca jellyfish on camera as it made a rippling trail through the water.
Fabien Martinazzo/Ocean ArtThis banded driftfish sought shelter in the tentacles of an amakusa jellyfish.
Tianhong Wang/Ocean ArtTwo yellow gobies found shelter in an old bottle on the sea floor.
George Kuo-Wei Kao/Ocean ArtAnother fish, a blenny, took a similar approach, fitting perfectly inside empty beer bottles on a sunken ship.
Enrico Somogyi/Ocean ArtThe peacock mantis shrimp has notoriously complex eyes, with 16 color receptors. Humans, by comparison, have three.
Yat Wai So/Ocean ArtPhotographer Hakan Basar caught this flamboyant cuttlefish at a colorful moment.
Hakan Basar/Ocean ArtPhotographer Fabien Martinazzo is convinced that this tompot blenny saw its reflection in his camera lens.
Fabien Martinazzo/Ocean Art
“She remained still for almost a minute,” Martinazzo wrote. “It was like we were having a long discussion.”
Even ocean worms can be colorful. Like humans, this alciopid worm has eyeballs with an iris and a cornea.
Fabien Michenet/Ocean ArtOff this island in French Polynesia, a completely different world swims just below the surface.
Taeyup Kim/Ocean Art
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