A humpback whale hangs motionless, suspended just below the surface. Its body is almost slumped in defeat. It faces away from the camera, as if embarrassed or ashamed. The whale is alone in an empty ocean, save for its own sad reflection rippling in the surface waters. A great tangle of fishing gear – a mess of ropes and buoys – is twisted painfully around the whale’s tail fluke, once a powerful instrument used to roam the open seas, now rendered completely useless. A gut-wrenching reminder of the true extent of man’s impact above and beneath the waves.
This is the story captured by underwater photographer Alvaro Herrero Lopez Beltra, in the powerful image that has just won him the title of Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year, a category of the prestigious Underwater Photographer of the Year competition (UPY) sponsored by the Save Our Seas Foundation. This category aims to showcase photography that draws attention to the issues facing our oceans, and the life within them, as well as shining light on success stories in marine conservation. Dr James Lea, CEO of the Save Our Seas foundation, says of the partnership with UWY:
The UPY was created in 2014 by legendary underwater photographers Alex Mustard, Dan Bolt and Peter Rowlands. They wanted to bring a dedicated and international underwater photography competition back to their home country, the UK. Although world-class competitions for wildlife photography had been running for decades, there hadn’t been a competition dedicated solely to underwater photography for over fifty years, since the Brighton Underwater Film Festival in the 1960s. The first UPY was a huge success, with over 2, 500 entries – and that number has continued to grow. By 2020, entries had doubled, and this year saw entries reach a record high.
Photographers from all over the world can enter a number of categories that include, but are not limited to, marine life. The UPY has awards for best wide angle and macro images, images shot on wrecks, portraits, black and white images and photographs shot using a compact camera. The ‘Save Our Seas Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year became an additional category in 2022, and is open to all photographers (not just underwater photographers). Images can be taken above or below the water, but must highlight a marine conservation story. The very first winner was Thien Nguyen Ngoc, for their image ‘Season of Anchovy Fishery’, which showed the extent of anchovy fishing practices in Phu Yen Province, Vietnam. The striking image is an aerial perspective of two small fishing boats, accompanied by immense nets that dwarf the boats themselves. It serves as a stark reminder of the scale of overfishing and our disproportionate impact on the marine environment. Alvaro now joins Thien, this time shedding light on the after-effects of fishing, long after the catch has been reeled in. It is a truly heart-breaking image, highlighting the unseen cost of our own selfishness and greed on animals much greater, and more ancient than ourselves. Judge Tobias Friedrich says of the winning photograph: “What a stunning image and what a message that it delivers. I can’t imagine the sadness when this poor whale has been discovered, but also a good decision to take a few images to actually get a message of awareness out to the public.”
The sponsorship from the Save Our Seas Foundation also enables entries to be free, and cash prizes be offered to the winners. It is hoped that this will encourage applicants from a diversity of backgrounds, and will also provide essential support for storytellers working to communicate the plight of the underwater world. “Photographers don’t take these images for prizes, but the profile that the sponsorship brings motivates them to share the images, so that they don’t remain hidden away on hard drives.” Says Dr Alex Mustard, MBE, judge and founder of UPY. “The exciting part is that this platform will enable them to be seen by millions, and I am sure several will go on to underpin major campaigns and affect positive changes in our seas.”
The Save Our Seas Foundation is proud to be partnering with UPY to celebrate talented conservation photographers, and help them to tell the stories of the ocean, the life within it, and the people working to safeguard it for future generations.