Wildlife photographer of the year: more spectacular images from the latest awards season.

Russ Smith
15 May 2018

As an avid world traveller, lover of the natural world and amateur photographer, the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year site is always a massive inspiration to me. Not just the images but the fascinating story behind each one.

These are my personal favourites from the 2017 awards:

Tony Wu, USA

Dozens of sperm whales mingled noisily off the coast, stacked as far as Tony could see. Immediately, he realised that this was something special – like a gathering of clans, these whales were part of a multi-day congregation. For Tony, the sight filled him with hope that ‘the recovery of sperm whale populations may be going well’.

The marble-like appearance of these whales is a sign of skin-sloughing. Large aggregations like this one will rub and roll against each other to exfoliate their neighbour’s dead skin, helping them to maintain hydrodynamic performance. The tactile contact also helps to reinforce social bonds.


Debra Garside, Canada

When polar bear mothers and cubs emerge from their dens in the early spring, the cubs stay close to their mothers for warmth and protection. Once the cubs are strong and confident enough, they make the trek to the sea ice with their mother so that she can resume hunting for seals. Debra waited six days near the den of this family, in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada, before they finally emerged. In the most challenging conditions she has ever faced, temperatures ranged from -35˚C (-31˚F) to -55˚C (-67˚F) with high winds, making it almost impossible to avoid frostbite and keep her camera gear functioning properly.


Laurent Ballesta, France

As soon as he saw the magnificent ice giant, Laurent craved to reveal its hidden depths. It took many hours to check out the location and prepare the shots but finally Laurent and his team were ready. Using a wide-angle lens they snapped 147 different images over three days. After careful stitching, the final image was assembled and ready to view.

Trapped by the surrounding ice field, the iceberg floats safely above the sea floor. When free to roam, however, these icebergs can gouge great marks across the ocean bed as they are turned about by the wind, current and tide. The curves and curlicues of the scars leave a record of the past that scientists can use to study climate change.


Sergey Gorshkov, Russia

Enchanted by its rugged beauty, Sergey finds any excuse to return to Wrangel Island. With no supplies available, he has to bring everything by helicopter – this two month trip took a year to plan. Collaborating with researchers, Sergey worked from shelters at the edge of the snow goose colony to reduce his impact on the inhabitants of this frozen world.

In late May, a quarter of a million snow geese arrive on Wrangel Island – the world’s largest breeding colony. Opportunistic Arctic foxes take advantage of the feast, stealing eggs and caching them for leaner times. But the geese and foxes are well matched – it would have taken luck and cunning to win this prize.


Stefano Unterthiner, Italy

Stefano’s story with the yaki (the local name for crested black macaques) began more than 10 years ago, when he first travelled to Sulawesi, Indonesia, to spend time with the primates. Since then, hunted for bushmeat, captured as pets and homeless due to deforestation, the yaki’s numbers have declined drastically and they are now critically endangered.

Determined to explore their plight, Stefano returned to Sulawesi and created a moving photostory, examining the relationship between macaques and humans. The investigation was complex, challenging and sometimes ‘incredibly tough’, but he knew he had to ‘put the feelings aside and do the job’, for this was a story that had to be told.


Adrian Steirn, Australia

This pangolin’s minder was cautious about Adrian’s presence. His charge was shy and it had taken him many moments of patience and round-the-clock care to gain its trust. Respecting this bond and the pangolin’s rehabilitation, Adrian worked carefully to create this intimate and compelling portrait.

Recovering after its confiscation from poachers, this pangolin is one of the lucky ones. In spite of a global ban on their trade, pangolins continue to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, sold for their meat and scales. As with any conservation story, the situation is highly complex, with embedded cultural beliefs fuelling the black market.


Eilo Elvinger, Luxembourg​​​​​​​

Driven by curiosity and hunger, this polar bear and her cub stopped to investigate the dirty puddle leaking from Eilo’s ship. Without hesitation and in synchrony, they quickly lowered their heads to taste the stained snow. Ashamed, Eilo framed her shot in black and white, emphasising the contrast between the pollution and the pristine environment.

Year on year, a variety of noxious substances are brought into these bears’ habitats. Due to their low degradation rates, the pollutants remain in the environment, gradually accumulating as they make their way through the food web. As apex predators, the bears are exposed to high levels of these pollutants, which endanger their health and reproduction.


Chris Bray, Australia​​​​​​​

As the helicopter lifted over the Icelandic landscape, Chris was astounded by its beauty, admiring it as ‘a smorgasbord of colourful craters, mountain ranges and river delta patterns’. Through the open doors of the helicopter, fighting the biting wind and turbulence, he captured the most dramatic sight of all – the fractured Mýrdalsjökull ice cap.

Spanning almost 600 square kilometres, the vast ice cap is more than 650 metres thick in places and conceals the top of Katla – a large, active volcano. On average, Katla erupts every 40 to 60 years, each time covering Mýrdalsjökull with a fine layer of ash that gives the ice its sooty appearance.


Paddy Scott, UK​​​​​​​

Paddy was safely across the valley when the avalanche struck, stopping him in his tracks. Dwarfed by the immense backdrop, the snow and ice seemed to tumble in slow motion, billowing across the majestic landscape. Quickly framing his shot with a jagged ridge to give depth and scale, Paddy captured the avalanche’s unstoppable force.

Despite being smaller than its sisters, the steep faces of K6 make this mountain a formidable opponent. Conditions can change quickly with avalanches taking little more than a minute to reach the valleys below. Although Paddy’s shot may look sedate and gentle, in reality the snow and ice are travelling at hundreds of kilometres per hour.


Jordi Chias Pujol, Spain​​​​​​​​

The five-metre baitball was constantly changing shape and moving. The mackerel’s defence strategy seemed to be working, as for the hour Jordi followed them, freediving, no predators attacked. As the ball sank deeper, he captured a top-down perspective, highlighting the graceful choreography that belied the simmering tension.

By swimming in a tight, coordinated school, the slender mackerel confuse their predators, striped European barracudas and broader bluefish. Barracudas are skilful hunters of fish, as are the aggressive bluefish, which often attack shoals as well as hunting other animals such as squid.


Laurent Ballesta, France​​​​​​​

‘We were still a few metres from the surface, when I heard strange noises,’ explains Laurent. Curious, he approached slowly and was rewarded with the glorious sight of two Weddell seals – a mother and her newborn pup. ‘They looked so at ease, where I felt so inappropriate.’

Weddell seals give birth on ice and take their offspring for their first frosty swim a few weeks later. Eventually, the pups will grow up to be accomplished divers with excellent underwater vision. After familiarising themselves with their watery surroundings, adult seals can reach depths of 600 metres, staying submerged for up to 80 minutes.


John Mullineux, South Africa​​​​​​​

John waited patiently, never taking his eyes off the animals at the waterhole. Drought had heightened tensions in Kruger National Park and if he was lucky, he would be able to capture a crocodile attack. Wish granted, the crocodile suddenly exploded out of the water attacking the impala in the briefest of moments.

With lightning speed, the impala elude the reptile’s jaws, using their incredible acrobatic skills to escape. When alarmed, these mammals have been known to leap up to three metres in the air and can travel nine metres in a single bound – perfect for escaping a hungry crocodile.


George Karbus, Czech Republic/Ireland​​​​​​​

George was freediving, watching this pod of killer whales stunning fish with their tails before eating them. Suddenly, the mood changed as the whales regrouped 50 metres away. ‘A minute later, they came back in full attack mode,’ recalls George. ‘It was the most powerful behaviour I have ever witnessed – an intense, life-changing experience.’

Flying through the baitball at high speed with their mouths open, the killer whales will decimate this shoal of herring. This pod of around 20 individuals feed here from November to January. Each population of killer whales employs different strategies to catch prey, the mothers teaching their calves how to hunt with the group.


Marco Urso, Italy​​​​​​​

The anticipation of the brown bear cubs was palpable as their mother fished in Lake Kuril. As soon as she emerged grasping a plump sockeye salmon, they ran towards her, eager to claim their supper. As Marco took the photograph, the mother glanced towards him, her look of maternal protection clear to see.

The bright colour of this fish shows us that it is breeding season in Lake Kuril, which plays host to one of the largest salmon-spawning events in the world. These bears are mostly vegetarian, but they will take advantage of the well-stocked lake before moving on.


Imre Potyó, Hungary​​​​​​​

Hunting for moths with a torch, ‘I was soon covered in them’, says Imre. He used an in-camera double exposure, lighting the moth with multiple bursts from a stroboscopic flash and firing the shutter again with the focus on the stars. It took many attempts to create this image, revealing the moth’s night-time pursuits.

From late October to early January, clouds of male winter moths search for the scent of the wingless females. Each female can lay 350 eggs that hatch in spring to take advantage of the first flush of green leaves. This early rush of life is a feast for blue tits, which feed their young on the succulent green caterpillars.


Justin Gilligan, Australia​​​​​​​

Justin was busy documenting an artificial reef experiment when the army of crabs appeared, with an octopus acting ‘like an excited child in a candy store’, as it chose its final catch. The irony of this unexpected encounter isn’t lost on Justin: ‘An aggregation of crabs the size of a football field wandered through the experiment and we had no idea why.’

Moments like these reinforce how little we know about Australia’s temperate reefs, and ocean ecosystems generally. Spider crabs usually come together for protection while they moult or mate, but these groupings were previously unknown in this area. Crabs like these are common prey for the Maori octopus – the largest in Australian waters.


Ingo Arndt, Germany

Ingo was in Costa Rica for three weeks, but the conditions he needed – an arribada (a mass arrival of turtles) and enough light to capture the spectacle – only combined on one night. Tracing their paths with a four-second exposure in the dim blue of the night, he portrayed hundreds of turtles dragging themselves up the sand.

The greatest arribadas occur in the rainy season, often on the darkest nights, a few days before a new moon. Hundreds of thousands of female olive ridley turtles haul themselves up their natal beaches to dig nests in the sand and lay their eggs. A million eggs can be laid on the beaches of this reserve each year.


Rodrigo Friscione Wyssmann, Mexico​​​​​​​

As Rodrigo dived down, two crocodiles lunged at one another, less than a metre away. The fight lasted seconds, but it was a moment Rodrigo had dreamed of for years. Lying on the bottom, camera pre-set to shoot into the surface light, and strobes aimed downwards to minimise backscatter, he finally captured the fierce energy of a clash.

Though American crocodiles are well known for their territorial aggression, combats are rare – smaller crocodiles usually give way to larger ones. Both about three metres long, these two were evenly matched. They attacked each other’s eyes and throat, powered by strong limbs, sharp claws and muscular tails and wielding up to 30 pointed, conical teeth.


Klaus Nigge, Germany​​​​​​​​​​

After several days of constant rain the bald eagle was soaked to the skin. ‘As the eagle edged nearer, picking up scraps, I lowered my head, looking through the camera to avoid direct eye contact,’ says Klaus. His low perspective and simple composition concentrates the portrait on the eagle’s expression, enhanced by the overcast light.

Opportunists with a penchant for fish, bald eagles gather at Dutch Harbor to take advantage of the fishing industry’s leftovers. After dramatic declines in the twentieth century, the species has started to recover, but the birds are still poisoned by eating carrion containing toxic lead ammunition. A ban was recently overturned in the USA.


Wade Hughes, Australia​​​​​​​

The female humpback whale repeatedly approached Wade, her eye wide open to get a good look. She had recently given birth and was probably sizing him up to see if he posed any risk to her calf. ‘With a close-up portrait, I wanted to capture something of the intensity of her look and her intelligence,’ says Wade.

The circular scars of whale barnacles are testament to the long lives of humpback whales. Their life expectancy – 60 to 70 years – is similar to ours. The warm waters around Vava‘u are the whales’ winter breeding ground. In a few weeks the mothers will lead their young calves more than 5,000 kilometres back to the krill-rich waters of Antarctica.


Peter Delaney, Ireland/South Africa​​​​​​​

Peter had spent a long, difficult morning tracking chimpanzees through dense undergrowth. ‘Photographing in a rainforest with dim light and splashes of sunlight means your exposure settings are forever changing,’ he says. Keeping his camera at its optimum ISO setting meant a slow shutter speed, so it was hard to keep a sharp focus without a tripod.

The troop of 250 chimpanzees had spent the morning high in the canopy. Totti, named after an Italian footballer, is a favourite with the rangers, but perhaps not the ladies. After trying everything to entice a female to join him on the ground – posturing, gesturing and calling seductively – he gave up and flopped onto the forest floor.


David Pattyn, Belgium​​​​​​​

Every day, David set out to find the lone male ibex that had arrived in the valley. This time he spotted it sheltering on a precipitous ledge, beneath an overhang. With quiet endurance, the ibex almost disappeared against the fabric of metamorphic rock, save for the snow on its back and head, and its eye, glimpsed between the flakes.

Stately in its thick winter coat, with imposing backward-curved horns, the Alpine ibex is emblematic of Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park. Threatened with extinction more than 100 years ago, ibex have returned across Europe, thanks to conservation efforts. Recent data, however, suggest numbers are going down again, and we don’t yet know why.


Access the Wildlife Photographer of the Year site here.​​​​​​​