The Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, organized by the Natural History Museum, London, has been stunning audiences with beautiful, dramatic photos of the natural world for 53 years. This year's competition attracted nearly 50,000 entries across 92 countries.
Judges chose the winning images based on creativity, originality and technical excellence. And as they expressed when choosing previous winners, images get bonus points if they tell a broader story about the current challenges facing wildlife and the environment.
"As we contemplate our critical role in Earth's future, the images show the astonishing diversity of life on our planet and the crucial need to shape a more sustainable future," the Natural History Museum said in a press release.
The photo above of Weddell seals in east Antarctica, titled "Swim gym," is by Laurent Ballesta of France and is one of this year's 13 Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalists. Keep reading below for more, with some of the top winners listed at the end.
This image by Sergey Gorshkov of Russia, which shows an Arctic fox carrying its trophy from a raid on a snow goose nest, was taken on Wrangel Island in the Russian Far East. Each June, vast flocks of snow geese descend on the tundra to lay their eggs, traveling from 3,000 miles away in British Columbia and California, according to the museum.
Arctic foxes will dine on weak or sick birds, and as the snow geese lay their eggs, the foxes steal up to 40 of them a day.
"Most of the eggs are then cached, buried in shallow holes in the tundra, where the soil stays as cold as a
refrigerator. These eggs will remain edible long after the brief Arctic summer is over and the geese have
migrated south again. And when the new generation of young foxes begins to explore, they too will benefit
from the hidden treasures," the museum says.
Can you believe this is an entry in the 11- to 14-year-old age group? Titled "Bear hug" and showing a mother brown bear and her cub, it was taken in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park by Ashleigh Scully of the United States.
"After fishing for clams at low tide, this mother brown bear was leading her young spring cubs back across the beach to the nearby meadow. But one young cub just wanted to stay and play," according to the museum. Scully came to the park to photograph the family life of brown bears because the area provides a lot of bear food: grasses in the meadows, salmon in the river and clams on the shore.
"I fell in love with brown bears and their personalities," says Scully. "This young cub seemed to think that it was big enough to wrestle mum to the sand. As always, she played along, firm, but patient."
Alaska proved to be a good breeding ground for this year's competition. This portrait of a soaked bald eagle was taken at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island, where bald eagles gather to take advantage of the fishing industry’s leftovers, the museum says.
"I lay on my belly on the beach surrounded by eagles," says photographer Klaus Nigge of Germany. "I got to know individuals, and they got to trust me."
One day, this particular eagle, drenched after days of rain, came close to him. "I lowered my head, looking through the camera to avoid direct eye contact," he says. It came so close that it towered over him, and he was able to focus in on the eagle’s expression.
Tyohar Kastiel of Israel watched this pair of resplendent quetzals all day long for more than a week in order to get this shot, taken in the Costa Rican cloud forest of San Gerardo de Dota. The parents would deliver fruits, insects or lizards to the chicks every hour or so.
"On the eighth day, the parents fed the chicks at dawn as usual but then didn’t return for several hours. By
10 a.m., the chicks were calling ravenously, and Kastiel began to worry. Then something wonderful happened.
The male arrived with a wild avocado in his beak. He landed on a nearby branch, scanned around, and then
flew to the nest. But instead of feeding the chicks, he flew back to his branch, the avocado still in his beak.
Within seconds, one chick hopped out to the nearest perch and was rewarded. Moments later the female
appeared and did exactly the same thing, and the second chick jumped out," the museum says.
Andrey Narchuk of Russia didn't intend to photograph sea angels on the day he snapped this shot in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East. He tells the museum he was on an expedition to photograph salmon, but when he jumped into the water, he found himself surrounded by mating sea angels. So he switched to his macro equipment and started photographing the pairs of tiny molluscs, which are just over an inch long.
"Each individual is both male and female, and here they are getting ready to insert their copulatory organs into each other to transfer sperm in synchrony," according to the museum. "One is slightly smaller than the other, as was the case with most of the couples Andrey observed, and they remained joined for 20 minutes."
Another finalist in the 11- to 14-year-old age group is 'Glimpse of a lynx" by Laura Albiac Vilas of Spain. The Iberian lynx is an endangered cat found only in southern Spain. Vilas and her family traveled to the Sierra de Andújar Natural Park in search of the lynx, and got lucky on the second day when they found a pair near a road.
She told the museum that many photographers were present, but there was an atmosphere of respect as the only sound was the camera noise when the animals looked in their direction. "The animals’ attitude surprised me. They weren’t scared of people, they simply ignored us," says Vilas. "I felt so emotional to be so close to them."
Talk about texture. David Lloyd of New Zealand and the U.K. snapped this shot of an elephant in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve during the herd's evening trek to a waterhole.
"As they got closer to his vehicle, he could see that the mellow light from the fast-setting sun was emphasizing every wrinkle and hair... He could see the different qualities of different parts of their — the deep ridges of their trunks, the mud-caked ears and the patina of dried dirt on their tusks," according to the museum.
This was the female leading about a dozen others. Lloyd says she was probably the matriarch and he describes her gaze as "full of respect and intelligence — the essence of sentience."
Saguaro cacti in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert National Monument fill the frame of 'Saguaro twist' by American Jack Dykinga, landing him a spot as a finalist in the Plants and Fungi category. These cacti can live to be 200 years old and grow 40 feet tall, though they grow very slowly and not always straight up.
The museum describes how Dykinga got this particular shot:
Most water is stored in sponge-like tissue, defended by hard external spines and a waxy-coated skin to reduce water loss. The surface pleats expand like accordions as the cactus swells, its burgeoning weight supported by woody ribs running along the folds. But the saturated limbs are vulnerable to hard frost – their flesh may freeze and crack, while the mighty arms twist down under their loads. A lifetime of searching out victims near his desert home led Jack to know several that promised interesting compositions. ‘This one allowed me to get right inside its limbs,’ he says. As the gentle dawn light bathed the saguaro’s contorted form, Jack’s wide angle revealed its furrowed arms, perfectly framing its neighbours before the distant Sand Tank Mountains.
This captivating image, which is a finalist for the Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image category, has a sad backstory.
This 6-month-old Sumatran tiger cub got a hind leg caught in a snare set in a rainforest in Aceh Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. He was found during an anti-poaching forest patrol, but the leg was so badly injured that doctors had to amputate. And while he's lucky to be alive, the cub will spend the rest of his life in a zoo.
In the wild, the Sumatran tiger population may be as low as 400 to 500 individuals, the result of poaching to fuel the illegal trade in tiger parts, the museum says.
Justin Hofman of the United States traveled to a reef near Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, to snap "Sewage surfer," another finalist in the Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image category.
Seahorses hitch rides on the currents by grabbing floating objects such as seaweed with their delicate prehensile tails, the museum explains. Hofman says he watched with delight as this tiny seahorse "almost hopped" from one bit of natural debris to the next. However, when the tide started to come in, so did other things, like bits of plastic, sewage and sludge. Soon, the seahorse was surfing the waves on a waterlogged cotton swab.
With echoes of "Finding Nemo," "The insiders" by Qing Lin of China is a finalist in the Under Water category.
Lin noticed something strange about this group of anemonefish while diving in the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Each one had an "extra pair of eyes inside its mouth — those of a parasitic isopod (a crustacean related to woodlice)," the museum explains. "An isopod enters a fish as a larva, via its gills, moves to the fish’s mouth and attaches with its legs to the base of the tongue. As the parasite sucks its host’s blood, the tongue withers, leaving the isopod attached in its place, where it may remain for several years."
It took patience and luck to snap a photo of these quick, unpredictable fish to line up just right.
Photographer Mats Andersson of Sweden tells the Natural History Museum that he walks every day in the forest near his home, often stopping to watch the red squirrels foraging in the spruce trees. Winter is tough on animals, and though many squirrels hibernate, red squirrels do not.
Their winter survival is linked to a good crop of spruce cones, the museum says, and they prefer woodland with conifers. They also store food to help get them through the winter.
One cold February morning, this red squirrel "closed its eyes for just a moment, paws together, fur fluffed, then resumed its search for food," according to the museum.
Announcing the winners
The Natural History Museum announced the winners of the 2017 competition in mid-October with highlights including a lounging gorilla, dozens of sperm whales, and the heartbreaking photo above of a black rhino killed for its horn.
The image was shot by photographer Brent Stirton of South Africa in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve. Poachers shot the bull, hacked off the horns and escaped before being discovered by the reserve's patrol.
The crime scene was one of more than 30 Stirton visited in the course of covering poaching.
The jury awarded the image the competition's most coveted title "because it was the most memorable and striking image of all 16 categories. The judges also felt it had 'sculptural power' and strong use of light, encapsulating the breakdown of a vulnerable species in one single frame."
Winner of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Daniël Nelson's photo focuses on Caco, a western lowland gorilla. Nelson had the close encounter after a three-hour trek through dense vegetation to where a 16-member family was feeding. Caco was enjoying a fleshy African breadfruit.
Because Caco is about 9 years old, he'll soon leave his family, perhaps to become solitary or team up with other males, eventually starting his own family.
The judges said, "In his compelling portrait of Caco–relaxed in his surroundings–Daniël captured the inextricable similarity between these wild apes and humans and the importance of the forest on which they depend."
Photographer Eilo Elvinger spotted a polar bear and her 2-year-old cub from her ship, anchored off Svalbard, in Arctic Norway. Nearing the ship, the bears were diverted to a patch of snow soaked in leakage from the vessel’s kitchen and began to lick it.
"I was ashamed of our contribution to the immaculate landscape," Elvinger says, and of how their encroachment influenced the bears' behavior.
With their back legs pressed together (cub on the right), the bears tasted the stained snow.
Elvinger framed her shot tightly, choosing black and white to "reflect the pollution as a shadow cast on the pristine environment."
Her image was the winner in the black and white category.
Photographer Tony Wu has spend 17 years studying and photographing sperm whales. In this image, which won the "Behavior: Mammals" category, he photographed dozens of the whales as they mingled off Sri Lanka's northeast coast, as far down as he could see.
Wu realized this was a congregation of dozens, maybe hundreds of social units, and said a major gathering like this could be "a sign that populations are recovering."
Because tactile contact is key in sperm whale social life, the water was filled with skin flakes as the whales rubbed against each other. Wu also had to contend with oily secretions from the whales and thick clouds of dung. He earned his unique image by continually swimming to reposition himself and through the whales' tolerance.
Editor's note: This file has been updated.