Hero© Martin Gregus, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Otherworldly image of underwater creation nets Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize

The winners of this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2021 have just been announced, and an extraordinary underwater scene is the winner.

French biologist and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta has been announced as this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his enigmatic image, Creation, that captures camouflage groupers exiting their milky cloud of eggs and sperm in Fakarava, French Polynesia.

Every year, for five years, Laurent and his team returned to this lagoon, diving day and night so as not to miss the annual spawning that only takes place around the full Moon in July. After dark, they were joined by hundreds of grey reef sharks, hunting the groupers in packs. Overfishing threatens this vulnerable species, but here the fish are protected within a special biosphere reserve.

Ten-year old Vidyun R Hebbar was awarded the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021 for his colourful image, Dome home. Vidyun first featured in the competition when he was just eight years old and loves to photograph the often-overlooked creatures that live in the streets and parks near his home in the city of Bengaluru, India.

The two Grand Title winners were selected from 19 category winners that celebrate the captivating beauty of our natural world with rich habitats, enthralling animal behaviour and extraordinary species.

Displayed alongside insights from Natural History Museum scientists and experts, the 100 images will be showcased in spectacular lightbox displays at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, opening on 15 October 2021, before touring across the UK and around the world.

Overall winner – Creation

Laurent Ballesta (France) peers into the depths as a trio of camouflage groupers exit their milky cloud of eggs and sperm. For five years Laurent and his team returned to this lagoon, diving day and night to see the annual spawning of camouflage groupers. They were joined after dark by reef sharks hunting the fish. Spawning happens around the full moon in July, when up to 20,000 fish gather in Fakarava in a narrow southern channel linking the lagoon with the ocean. Photo by Laurent Ballesta, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A trio of camouflage groupers exit their milky cloud of eggs and sperm, during their annual spawning. Spawning happens around the full moon in July, when up to 20,000 fish gather in Fakarava in a narrow southern channel linking the lagoon with the ocean. Photo by Laurent Ballesta/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner under 10 years and overall young winner – Dome home

A spider is commuting in a TukTuk - A Tent spider captured with the moving TukTuk in the baground .
Exploring his local theme park, photographer Vidyun found an occupied spider’s web in a gap in a wall. A passing tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw) provided a backdrop of rainbow colours to set off the spider’s silk creation. Tent spiders are tiny; the one featured in this image had legs spanning less than 15 millimetres. They weave non-sticky, square-meshed domes, surrounded by tangled networks of threads that make it difficult for prey to escape. Instead of spinning new webs every day, the spiders repair existing ones. Photo by Vidyun R Hebbar/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner 11-14 years – High-flying jay

Photo by Lasse Kurkela/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A Siberian jay, tiny among the old-growth spruce-dominated forest. Siberian jays use old trees as larders. Their sticky saliva helps them glue food such as seeds, berries, insects and small rodents high up in the holes and crevices of the bark and among hanging lichens. Photo by Lasse Kurkela/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner plants and fungi – Rich reflections

Lord Howe Island and its surrounding waters support the world’s southern-most tropical coral reef. The uniqu mix of tropical and temperate species and habitats is the result of converging currents. More than 318 species of marine algae occur here, 47 species (15%) are endemic. The unique algae-dominated reefs of the southern lagoon are a unique feature of Lord Howe Island’s marine ecosystem being explored by a Marine Ranger. Photo by Justin Gilligan/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Lord Howe Island and its surrounding waters support the world’s southernmost tropical coral reef, and are shown here being explored by a Marine Ranger. The unique mix of tropical and temperate species and habitats is the result of converging currents. More than 318 species of marine algae occur here, of which 47 species (15 per cent) are endemic. The algae-dominated reefs of the southern lagoon are a unique feature of Lord Howe Island’s marine ecosystem. Photo by Justin Gilligan/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner 11-14 years – Sunflower songbird

© Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A warbler bird flits from sunflower to sunflower in this scene on a warm May afternoon in Spain. From his hide in his father’s car, the young photographer captured an image of the ‘the king of its territory’. Melodious warblers are one of more than 400 species of songbird known as Old World warblers, which each have a distinctive song. The song of a melodious warbler is a pleasant babbling and without the mimicked sounds that other warblers sometimes make. Photo by Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner urban wildlife – The spider room

Imagine looking under your bed, only to find the 2nd most venomous spider in the world, which is also one of the world’s largest true spiders, sitting there guarding a thousand baby spiders that hatched from an egg sac. The mere thought of it would send chills down the spine of many people, and this is exactly the scenario I found myself dealing with while visiting a biological station in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Wandering spiders, like this Phoneutria fera, are widely abundant in the area and they often dwell into man-made habitats. I found them resting in bus stops, storage areas, and in people’s homes. Spiders of the genus Phoneutria suffer from a bad reputation due to the high potency of their venom but also their defensiveness. A threatened spider gives an initial warning by rearing up on its hindlegs and holding its forelegs up in the air, revealing aposematic coloration of black and yellow bands. It also exposes its red fangs (chelicerae). If the provocation persists, it will not hesitate to strike with a bite. Because of this behavior and the spider’s medical significance it is often killed on sight, however it is important to remember that these animals have an important role to play in the ecosystem and they never attack humans without provocation.
Needless to say, because this medically significant spider was under my bed I safely relocated it outside my room. The harmless spider babies were left untouched.
Location: Puerto Misahuallí, Napo Province, Ecuador.
Technical specification: Canon EOS 7D; Canon 14mm f2.8L lens; 1/250 sec at f11; ISO 400; Canon Macro Twin-Lite flash; custom made diffuser. Photo by Gil Wizen/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Brazilian wandering spiders, like this highly venomous Phoneutria fera, are abundant in the Ecuadorian Amazon. A threatened spider gives an initial warning by rearing up on its hindlegs and holding its forelegs up in the air, revealing aposematic coloration of black and yellow bands. It also exposes its red fangs. If the provocation persists, it will not hesitate to strike with a bite. Needless to say, because this medically significant spider was under the photographer’s bed he decided to relocate it outside his room. The harmless spider babies were left untouched. Photographed at Puerto Misahuallí, Napo Province, Ecuador. Photo by Gil Wizen/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner behaviour: mammals – Head to head

Photo by Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Two Svalbard reindeer battle for control of a harem. The reindeer clashed antlers until the dominant male (left) chased its rival away, securing the opportunity to breed. Reindeer are widespread around the Arctic, but this subspecies occurs only in Svalbard. Populations are affected by climate change, since increased rainfall can freeze on the ground, preventing access to plants that would otherwise sit under soft snow. Photo by Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner behaviour: amphibians and reptiles – Where the giant newts breed

© João Rodrigues, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Found on the Iberian Peninsula and in northern Morocco, sharp-ribbed newts (or salamanders) are named after their defence strategy. They use their pointed ribs as weapons, piercing through their own skin and picking up poisonous secretions, then jabbing them into an attacker. Photo by João Rodrigues/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner wetlands – Road to ruin

Photo by Javier Lafuente/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A stark, straight line of a road slices through the curves of the Spanish wetland landscape, showing pools of flat colours, varying according to the vegetation and mineral content. The tidal wetland is home to more than a hundred species of bird, with ospreys and bee-eaters among many migratory visitors. Photo by Javier Lafuente/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner photojournalist story award – The healing touch

LWIRO, EASTERN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Itsazo Velez, the director at the Lwiro Chimpanzee rescue and sanctuary center, introduces two new rescued baby chimps into the juvenile enclosure at the center. Itsazo is careful to introduce the new babies slowly, seperating the large juveniles first and slowly allowing the group to meet the two new arrivals. They will be closely monitored by the keepers who live with the juvenile and baby chimps 24/7 in their enclosure and at night in their night dormitory. These chimps are all rescues and come from the bushmeat trade in DRC after their mothers were killed for bushmeat. The babies are often taken for sale and sometimes for pets. As a result many of these chimps have lived lives of isolation, suffering and cruelty. The sanctuary is a place where they can learn to be chimps for the first time and interact with other chimps. They were brought to the sanctuary after being rescued either by the Congolese Conservation authority or the Lwiro staff. Photo by Brent Stirton/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Itsazo Velez, the director at the Lwiro Chimpanzee rescue and sanctuary centre, Democratic Republic of Congo, introduces two new rescued baby chimps into the juvenile enclosure at the centre. Itsazo is careful to introduce the new babies slowly, separating the large juveniles first and slowly allowing the group to meet the two new arrivals. They will be closely monitored by the keepers who live with the juvenile and baby chimps 24/7 in their enclosure and night dormitory. The mothers of these babies were killed for bushmeat, but thankfully these chimps were rescued and brought to Lwiro. The sanctuary is a place where the babies can learn to be chimps for the first time and interact with other chimps. Photo by Brent Stirton/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner behaviour: birds – The intimate touch

© Shane Kalyn, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A raven courtship display during midwinter, the start of the ravens’ breeding season. This couple exchanged gifts of moss, twigs and small stones and preened and serenaded each other with soft warbling sounds to strengthen their relationship or ‘pair bond’. Photo by Shane Kalyn/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner natural artistry – Bedazzled

Photo by Alex Mustard/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A ghost pipefish hiding among the arms of a feather star. Alex had always wanted to capture this image of a juvenile ghost pipefish but usually only found darker adults on matching feather stars. His image conveys the confusion a predator would likely face when encountering this kaleidoscope of colour and pattern. The juvenile’s loud colours signify that it landed on the coral reef in the past 24 hours. In a day or two, its colour pattern will change, enabling it to blend in with the feather star. Photo by Alex Mustard/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Take a look at some of our other image galleries:

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Winner oceans: the bigger picture – Nursery meltdown

Blood paints the ice as the 2020 harp seal herd gives birth on unstable fractured sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, Canada. Harp seals migrate down from Arctic waters in the fall and enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence waiting for sea ice to form. The herd of harp seal females hauls out and give birth in late February. A storm demolished the early sea ice that formed in late January and early February. Concentrated by wind, wave and current, the fragments came together to form an unstable patchwork of ice. The herd discovered this fragile ice and selected this platform as their only nursery option in the Gulf. The loosely connected sea ice began to disinetgrate and break up early causing another year of high pup mortality. Harp seals pups are a extraordinarily beautiful creature facing the ugly and brutal truth of climate change. As tempertures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence rise the sea ice decreases or fails to form at all causing catastrophic loss of some year classes. Photo by Jennifer Hayes/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) herd gives birth on unstable fractured sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, Canada. Harp seals migrate down from Arctic waters in the fall and enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence waiting for sea ice to form. The herd of harp seal females hauls out and gives birth in late February. After a storm demolished the early sea ice that had formed in late January, the fragments came together to form an unstable patchwork. The herd discovered this fragile ice and selected this platform as their only nursery option in the Gulf. The loosely connected sea ice began to break up early causing another year of high pup mortality. Photo by Jennifer Hayes/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner behaviour: Invertebrates – Spinning the cradle

While searching for arthropods in a forest near my home in southern Ontario Canada, I discovered a fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) under a slab of tree bark. Fishing spiders are common in wetlands where they feed on small aquatic animals, but they are also very common in temperate forests. The spider was in the process of producing an egg sac, so I decided to observe its behavior carefully without disturbance. I noticed it was spinning around in circles while also spinning webs, slowly constructing a silken disk that later turned into a hollow dish shape. At this point I decided to photograph the action, focusing on the separate silk threads coming out of the spider’s spinnerets. As I was watching the spider in its work, I couldn’t help noticing how similar the spinneret movements are to human fingers moving while weaving. I like that the photo shows the spider stretching the silk threads, right before incorporating them into the rest of the forming sac. After about an hour, the spider completed most of the sac and was getting ready to lay its eggs inside it, at which point I slowly moved the bark back in place and left the animal to its business. Spiders at the crucial stage of egg laying become stressed at the smallest disturbance and this can damage the embryos developing in the fresh eggs. I was happy with the photographs I got, and this was enough for me. There was no need to destroy the next generation of fishing spiders for the sake of obtaining more photos. 
Location: Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. 
Technical specification: Canon EOS 7D; Laowa 100mm f2.8 lens; 1/100 sec at f10; ISO 100; Canon Macro Twin-Lite flash; custom made diffuser.
A fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) is pictured under a slab of tree bark. Fishing spiders are common in wetlands where they feed on small aquatic animals, but they are also very common in temperate forests. The spider was in the process of producing an egg sac, spinning around in circles while also spinning webs, slowly constructing a silken disk that later turned into a hollow dish shape. Photographed at Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Gil Wizen/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner photojournalism – The elephant in the room

Photo by Adam Oswell/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Although this performance was promoted as educational and as exercise for the elephants, the photographer was disturbed by this scene. Organisations concerned with the welfare of captive elephants view performances like these as exploitative because they encourage unnatural behaviour. Elephant tourism has increased across Asia, and in Thailand there are now more elephants in captivity than in the wild. The COVID-19 pandemic caused international tourism to collapse, leading to elephant sanctuaries becoming overwhelmed with animals that can no longer be looked after by their owners. Photo by Adam Oswell/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner animals in their environment – Grizzly leftovers

A Grizzly Bear investigates a bull elk carcass in Montana. I captured this intense moment with the help of a specialized remote camera. Photo by Zack Clothier/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A Grizzly Bear investigates a bull elk carcass in Montana, USA, in this scene captured by a camera trap. Grizzlies, a subspecies of brown bears, spend up to seven months in a light form of hibernation called torpor. Emerging in spring, they are hungry and consume a wide variety of food, including mammals. Photo by Zack Clothier/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner animal portraits – Reflection

5 hours walking trip go and back to face those beautiful animals and it is first time for me to visit Uganda after many years in Kenya safari it was really different experience than kenya safari to do walking for 4 hours and it was raining i start taking photos for the gorilla family and when it is start rain i stop to take this portrait and i like how quite they was under the rain. Photo by Majed Ali/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
This magnificent mountain gorilla, photographed in Uganda, is called Kibande. The photographer had to trek for four hours to meet the 39-year-old gorilla. ‘The more we climbed, the hotter and more humid it got,’ Majed recalls. As cooling rain began to fall, Kibande remained in the open, seeming to enjoy the shower. Photo by Majed Ali/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner portfolio award – Face-off

Two barely four centimetre long adult males Neolamprologus brevis battle for the ownership of a shell. N. brevis is one of the many shell dwelling species in Lake Tanganyika that use empty Neothauma tanganicensis shells as shelter and nest. But it is the only one in which both male an female live together in the same shell. Image shows the owner of the shell (left), rejecting an aspirant´s attempt to steal his shell... and the female inside.
These adult male cichlid fish (Neolamprologus brevis), barely four centimetres long, battle for ownership of a shell. This species is one of the many shell dwelling species in Lake Tanganyika, Africa, that use empty Neothauma tanganicensis shells as shelter and nest. But it is the only one in which both male and female live together in the same shell. Image shows the owner of the shell (left), rejecting a rival’s attempt to steal his shell and the female inside. Photo by Angel Fitor/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winner rising star portfolio award – Cool time

Photo by Martin Gregus/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
On a hot summer’s day in Hudson Bay, Canada, two female polar bears take to the shallow intertidal waters to cool off and play. The photographer used a drone to capture this moment. Photo by Martin Gregus/Wildlife Photographer of the Year