Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024: Haunting snap of whale bones hidden beneath ice takes top prize

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The emotional photo shows a diver coming face to face with the aftermath of commercial whaling

An evocative snap of a freediver drifting through a graveyard of whale bones has scored its photographer the coveted Underwater Photographer of the Year title for 2024.

Swedish photographer Alex Dawson’s ‘Whale Bones’, showing a diver coming face-to-face with the destruction wrought by commercial whaling, triumphed over 6,500 other underwater pictures entered by photographers from around the world. Judging panel chair Alex Mustard said the in was well-deserved, with the picture taken "in the toughest conditions... as a breath-hold diver descends below the Greenland ice sheet to bear witness to the carcasses".

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"The composition invites us to consider our impact on the great creatures of this planet," he said. "Since the rise of humans, wild animals have declined by 85%. Today, just 4% of mammals are wildlife, the remaining 96% are humans and our livestock. Our way needs to change to find a balance with nature.”

Alex Dawson’s ‘Whale Bones’ won him Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 (Photo: Alex Dawson/UPY2024)Alex Dawson’s ‘Whale Bones’ won him Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 (Photo: Alex Dawson/UPY2024)
Alex Dawson’s ‘Whale Bones’ won him Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 (Photo: Alex Dawson/UPY2024) | Alex Dawson

Whales dominated the winning pictures this year, with Spanish photographer Rafael Fernandez Caballero winning two categories with his revealing photos of the ocean giants - a close up of a grey whale’s eye and an action shot of a Bryde’s whale engulfing an entire bait ball - both taken in Baja California, Mexico. Caballero took ‘Grey Whale Connection’ while drifting in a small boat, holding his camera over the side in the water to photograph the curious whale.

‘The End Of A Baitball’ required him to dive down and be in exactly the right place - at the moment the whale lunged. “The photo shows the high speed attack,” he said, “with the whale engulfing hundreds of kilograms of sardines in one bite - [it was] simply unforgettable to see predation on such a scale.”

Jenny Stock was named British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image 'Star Attraction' (Photo: Jenny Stock/UPY2024)Jenny Stock was named British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image 'Star Attraction' (Photo: Jenny Stock/UPY2024)
Jenny Stock was named British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image 'Star Attraction' (Photo: Jenny Stock/UPY2024) | Jenny Stock

Lisa Stengel from the United States was named Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year, for her image of a mahi-mahi catching a sardine in Mexico. Stengel used both a very fast shutter speed and her hearing to catch the moment. “If you listen there’s an enormous amount of sound in the ocean,” she explained. “The action was too fast to see, so I honed in on the sound of the attacks with my camera to capture this special moment.”

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Judge Mustard added: “It is such an exciting time in underwater photography because photographers are capturing such amazing new images, by visiting new locations and using the latest cameras. Until this year I’d hardly ever see a photo of a mahi mahi, now Lisa has photographed one hunting, action that plays out in the blink of an eye.”

The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest is based in the UK, and Jenny Stock was named the British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image 'Star Attraction', which found beauty in species of British wildlife that were often overlooked. Exploring the west coast of Scotland, Stock said: “In the dark green depths my torch picked out the vivid colours of a living carpet of thousands of brittle stars, each with a different pattern. I was happily snapping away, when I spotted this purple sea urchin and I got really excited.”

In the same contest, Portuguese photographer, Nuno Sá, was named Save Our Seas Foundation's Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2024, with his photo ‘Saving Goliath’, taken in Portugal. Sá’s photo shows beachgoers working to save a stranded sperm whale. He said the picture gave hope that people do care and want to help the oceans, but was also a warning that bigger changes were needed.

“The whale had been struck by a ship and its fate was sealed,” Sá explained. “An estimated 20,000 whales are killed every year, and many more injured, after being struck by ships-and few people even realise that it happens."

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