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Paddle boarders sunset, 2018 Ocean Art Contest. Photo: Grant Thomas

The Inertia

The saying goes, “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” but how often do we actually ask a photographer or even the observer of a photo to offer up those thousand words? The best images often don’t need context to catch our gaze, to make us think, or even to tell a story on their own. But there’s certainly something to be said for hearing a backstory or a little bit of history behind a moment that’s been captured.

Over the past seven years, the Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition has grown to be one of the most prestigious contests among underwater lensman. The competition awards over $80,000 in prizes to its winners across 16 different categories, which is a major reason it draws thousands of entries from more than 70 countries around the world. Based on sheer volume and competitiveness the winners are the cream of the crop in underwater photography.

Here are a handful of the most recent winners in their respective categories with the photographers sharing just how these moments were captured. Sometimes the story is almost as incredible as the image itself.

Best of Show, by Duncan Murrell


Photo: Duncan Murrell

“Spinetail devil rays, (Mobula japanica) engaged in rarely observed or photographed courtship behavior with two males pursuing one female.”

Wide Angle, by François Baelen

Photo: François Baelen

“This unique encounter happened in September 2018 in Reunion Island (Western Indian Ocean) where the humpback whales come here to breed and give birth. The mother was resting 15 meters down, while her calf was enjoying his new human friends.


Trust. This is what came to my mind when this close to a 30-ton animal, still hunted today by mankind. The whale allowed me to freedive behind her and take that shot.

From down there, everything seemed unreal: that huge tail centimeters away from me, the calf, my friend free diving symmetrically. I knew I would not get a shot like this one again.

The post-production was all about getting a good white balance and reducing noise because this photo was taken with natural light only, 15 meters deep.”

Portrait, by Claudio Zori

Photo: Claudio Zori

“The spotted ratfish, a resident of the northeastern part of the Pacific Ocean, usually lives between 50 and 400 meters and prefers temperatures no higher than 9 degrees. However, it tends to approach in shallow water during the spring and fall. While swimming, it can perform rotations and twists as if it were flying. The photo was taken in a night dive in front of God’s Pocket dive resort.”

Macro, by Jeff Milisen


Photo: Jeff Milisen

“One of the things that makes guiding a blackwater dive so rewarding is the chance to spread my passion to the six eager customers. But even guides have to let loose, and for that, we find empty boat seats and tag along to hone our skills. On this night, I was going holo holo (for pleasure) when I found this sharp-eared enope squid just under the surface. Most enope squids are small and thus difficult to shoot. As they mature, the difficult paralarva comes into its own. Every detail in the arms, organs, and chromatophores blasts to life in radiant color. Such was the case with this gem of a specimen. At around three inches in length, it was easily the largest and prettiest sharp-eared enope squid I recall finding. I caught the guide’s glance and let him show it to the nearby customers, but soon the animal fled down, so I followed where the guide couldn’t. We descended past 40 feet, 50 feet, 60 feet while I continued watching, studying, and shooting. Anywhere else and these would be shallow depths, but the middle of the ocean at night is a lonely place. I cruised slowly by 70 feet, the guide’s torch watching me. At 80 feet the Kraken’s dancing and squirming still entranced me. Finally, at 90 feet deep, it was time to leave my new little friend at peace.”

Novice DSLR, by Alvin Cheung

Photo: Alvin Cheung

“‘Background first,’ was an important tip given by prominent underwater photographer Mark Strickland during an underwater photo workshop organized by Bluewater Travel on a trip to Socorro in 2017. I was new to underwater photography.

So during a dive in the famous El Boiler when this giant oceanic manta ray suddenly showed up from the blue, I realized that the chance of getting a decent shot of it was slim due to the distance and the presence of too many divers around it. I remembered ‘Background first!’.

I then quickly looked around and found that another diver, Marissa, was a few meters away from me and behind her was the landmark pinnacle of El Boiler. Visibility was crystal. I thought Marissa, together with the structure of the pinnacle, might be able to create an interesting background showing both the location of the dive site and the scale of the giant manta. I swam away from the group towards the direction of Marissa, hoping the manta would follow. With luck, the manta left the group later and approached Marissa for an investigation. Hence this photo.”

Mirrorless Behavior, by Fabrice Dudenhofer


Photo: Fabrice Dudenhofer

“I have been fortunate enough to have a Japanese guide who showed me a couple of clownfish with their baby eggs. I never had the chance to shoot this type of interaction before so it was a big challenge for me. The adults swam endlessly around the eggs in order to oxygen them. Because of their endless movements, it was difficult to get the perfect moment. To achieve the perfect shot I needed patience and a big part of luck. The guide and I stayed more than half an hour and I took more than 50 photos. I really wanted to show how some parent fish cared for their babies.

In this regard, these clownfish are not so different from us.”

Editor’s Note: You can see the entire list of winners and honorable mentions from the 2018 Ocean Art Underwater Photo Contest here


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