Essence of elephants by Greg du Toit

Photo: Greg du Toit/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Essence of elephants

Winner: Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Ever since he first picked up a camera, South African photographer Greg du Toit has photographed elephants. "For many years," he says, "I’ve wanted to create an image that captures their special energy and the state of consciousness that I sense when I’m with them. This image comes closest to doing that."

The shot was taken at a waterhole in Botswana’s Northern Tuli Game Reserve, from a hide (a sunken freight container) that provided a ground-level view. Using a slow shutter speed, du Toit creates an atmosphere that depicts "these gentle giants in an almost ghostly way." He used a wide-angle lens tilted up to emphasise the size of whatever elephant entered the foreground, and chose a narrow aperture to create a large depth of field so that any elephants in the background would also be in focus.

Although du Toit had hoped the elephants would turn up before dawn, they arrived after the sun was up. To emphasize the mysterious nature of these enigmatic subjects, he attached a polarising filter and set his white balance to a cool temperature.

The element of luck that added the final touch to his preparation was the baby elephant, which raced past the hide, so close that du Toit could have touched her. The slow shutter speed conveyed the motion, and a short burst of flash at the end of the exposure froze a fleeting bit of detail.

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Mother’s little headful by Udayan Rao Pawar

Photo: Udayan Rao Pawar/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Mother's little headful
Winner: Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year

One night, 14-year-old Indian photographer Udayan Rao Pawar camped near a nesting colony of gharials on the banks of the Chambal River – two groups of them, each with more than 100 hatchlings. Before daybreak, he crept down and hid behind rocks beside the babies.

"I could hear them making little grunting sounds," says Pawar. "Very soon a large female surfaced near the shore, checking on her charges. Some of the hatchlings swam to her and climbed onto her head. Perhaps it made them feel safe."

It turned out that she was the chief female of the group, looking after all the hatchlings. Though he saw a few more females and a male, they never came close.

Gharials were once found in rivers all over the Indian subcontinent. Today, just 200 or so breeding adults remain in just 2 per cent of the former range. Although the Chambal River is the gharial’s last stronghold, it's gravely threatened by illegal sand-mining and fishing.

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Lucky pounce by Connor Stefanison

Photo: Connor Stefanison/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Lucky pounce

Eric Hosking Portfolio Award recipient

"Anticipating the pounce – that was the hardest part," says Stefanison who had come to Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park in search of wildlife as much as the spectacular landscape.

He had found this fox, his first ever, on his last day in the park. It was so absorbed in hunting that Stefanison had plenty of time to get out of the car and settle behind a rock. It quartered the grassland, back and forth, and then started staring intently at a patch of ground, giving Connor just enough warning of the action to come. When it sprung up, Stefanison got his shot. And when it landed, the fox got his mouse.

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Snow moment by Jasper Doest

Photo: Jasper Doest/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Snow moment

"Creative Visions" category winner

When photographing the famous Japanese macaques around the hot springs of Jigokudani, central Japan, Dutch photographer Jasper Doest had become fascinated by the surreal effects created by the arrival of a cold wind.

Occasionally, a blast would blow through the steam rising off the pools. If it was snowing, the result would be a mesmerising pattern of swirling steam and snowflakes, which would whirl around any macaques warming up in the pools. But capturing the moment required total luck – for Doest to be there when the wind blew and for the monkeys to be in the pool. For that luck to arrive, he had to wait another year.

Returning the next winter, he determined to get the shot he’d been obsessing about. He set up using a polariser to remove reflections from the water and create a dark contrasting background, and got ready to use fill-flash to catch the snowflakes.

"As it kept snowing, I stood there, willing the wind to pick up. I felt it just had to happen – sometimes you can push your luck if I you just wait long enough." But as the steam started swirling above the water, there wasn’t a monkey in sight. "All of a sudden one adult appeared and jumped on a rock in the middle of the pool. When I started shaking off the snow, I knew this was the moment."

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The water bear by Paul Souders

Photo: Paul Souders/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The water bear

"Animals in Their Environment" category winner

The fact that most images of polar bears show them on land or ice says more about the practical difficulties faced by humans than it does about the bears’ behavior. With adaptations such as thick blubber and nostrils that close, polar bears are, in fact, highly aquatic, and they spend most of their time hunting seals on sea ice and are capable of swimming for hours at a time.

American photographer Paul Souders took his Zodiac boat to Hudson Bay, Canada, in midsummer to rectify this bias. He scouted for three days before he spotted a bear, this young female, on sea ice some 30 miles offshore.

"I approached her very, very slowly, and then drifted," Souders said. "It was a cat-and-mouse game." When the bear slipped into the water, he just waited. "There was just a flat, world of water and ice and this polar bear swimming lazily around me. I could hear her slow, regular breathing as she watched me below the surface or the exhalation as she surfaced, increasingly curious. It was very special."

The light was also special, but for a sinister reason. The midnight sun was filtered through smoke from forest fires raging farther south, a symptom of the warming Arctic – the greatest threat facing the polar bear. As more and more sea ice melts earlier and earlier every spring, it becomes harder for the bears to hunt the seals they depend on.

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The flight path by Connor Stefanison

Photo: Connor Stefanison/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The flight path

Eric Hosking Portfolio Award recipient

Stefanison’s photography draws on the wilderness skills he acquired over a childhood spent largely outdoors.

This female barred owl had a territory near his home in Burnaby, British Columbia. He watched her for some time, familiarizing himself with her flight paths until he knew her well enough to set up the shot. Stefanison was hoping to include the western red cedar and the sword ferns that are typical of Pacific coastal rainforests.

Setting up his camera near one of the owl’s favourite perches, linked to a remote and three off-camera flashes, diffused and on low settings, Stefanison put a dead mouse on a platform above the camera and waited for the swoop that he knew would come.

"She grabbed the mouse, flew back to her perch and began calling to her mate. It is one of the most exciting calls to hear in the wild."

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The spat by Joe McDonald

Photo: Joe McDonald/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The spat

"Behavior: Mammals" category winner

For several hours, the noisy sounds of courtship and mating were all American photographer Joe McDonald was treated to as he sat, sweltering in the hot sun, in a boat on the Three Brothers River in Brazil’s Pantanal. So when the female jaguar finally emerged from the undergrowth and walked down to the river to drink, Joe was grateful for the photo opportunity. But that was just a start.

After slaking her thirst, the female flopped down on the sand. Then the male appeared. After drinking and scent-marking, he approached the female, who was lying in what appeared to be a pose of enticement. At least, that’s what both Joe and the male thought. She rose, growled and suddenly charged, slamming the male back as he reared up to avoid her outstretched claws. His own claws were sheathed.

"I couldn’t believe the energy and intensity of those three seconds," McDonald said. The pair then disappeared into the undergrowth to resume their courtship, leaving Joe with a sense of awe and a rare, winning image.

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Sticky situation by Isak Pretorius

Photo: Isak Pretorius/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Sticky situation

"Behavior: Birds" category winner

In May, the seafaring lesser noddies head for land to breed. Their arrival on the tiny island of Cousine in the Seychelles coincides with peak web size for the red-legged golden orb-web spiders.

The female spiders, which can grow to the size of a hand, create colossal conjoined webs up to 1.5 meters in diameter in which the tiny males gather. These are woven from extremely strong silk and are suspended up to six meters above the ground, high enough to catch passing bats and birds, though it’s flying insects that the spiders are after.

Noddies regularly fly into the webs. Even if they struggle free, the silk clogs up their feathers so they can’t fly. This noddy was exhausted, said South African photographer Isak Pretorius: "Totally still, its fragile wing so fully stretched that I could see every feather." The only way to accentuate the female spider was to crop the wings. And it was only human intervention that saved the bird.

But a stickier threat awaited it on the same island: native pisonia, or cabbage trees. These are favourite nesting places for lesser noddies, whose feathers get covered in the trees’ sticky seeds. If the load is too heavy, they can’t fly, fall to the ground and die. But there is an ultimate twist to the story: the corpses provide compost for the seeds, which give rise to new nesting places for future generations of noddies.

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Dive buddy by Luis Javier Sandoval

Photo: Luis Javier Sandoval/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Dive buddy

"Behavior: Cold-blooded animals" category winner

The beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, near Cancún are traditional nesting sites for the endangered green turtle. But as Cancún has also grown as a holiday and dive resort, development has reduced the area available to turtles. Today, though, many nest sites are protected, there are turtle hatcheries to help numbers increase, and there is publicity to help local people and resort owners value the natural riches of the region.

Mexican photographer Luis Javier Sandoval earns enough from tourism photography to allow him time to document his beloved wildlife. "The turtles are so used to seeing people in the water that they think we’re just part of the environment," said Sandoval, who has been able to get to know individuals, recognizing them from the markings on their faces. "This meter-long female, grazing on seagrass, took no notice of me, apart from glancing up briefly."

Recently, Sandoval noticed what he suspects may be a new threat: At certain times of the year, a yellowish alga covers some of the seagrass. The suspicion is that the algal growth is the result of sewage from the resort, which has already affected the coral. What is clear is that the turtles avoid eating it.

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The cauldron by Sergey Gorshkov

Photo: Sergey Gorschkov/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The cauldron

'Wildscapes' category winner

On Nov. 29, 2012, Sergey received the call that he had long hoped for. Plosky Tolbachik – one of two volcanoes in the Tolbachik volcanic plateau in central Kamchatka, Russia – had begun to erupt.

"I’ve gone to the area many times, but it had been 36 years since the last eruption," he says. "So I dropped everything and went."

The only way to approach it was by helicopter, but extreme cold (-40°C) meant Sergey had to wait until it was warm enough for the helicopter to take off. Flying towards the volcano, the cloud of ash, smoke and steam was so thick that he couldn’t see the crater. But every so often, a strong wind blew the clouds away, and he could see a 200-meter-high fountain of lava spouting out of the crater and fast-flowing, molten rivers of lava running down it (some of these would travel 10 kilometers, sweeping away everything in their path).

As gusts of hot air buffeted the helicopter, Sergey worked fast, strapped to the open door. "I just kept shooting, kept changing lenses and camera angles, knowing I had this one chance, hoping that I’d take one image that might do justice to what I was witnessing."

That was indeed his last chance. At 1 a.m., a new explosion happened, the ground rumbled, huge lava bombs threatened the campsite, and a heavy rain of ash and smoke made it impossible to take pictures.

"I have been to many places and I have seen many extraordinary things, but witnessing the Plosky Tolbachik eruption deeply impressed me."

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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