Touching trust by Thomas P Peschak

First look: Wildlife Photographer of the Year 55

Explore this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition images. 

A sleeping seal, a zombie beetle and a tragic turtle are just some of the Highly Commended pictures from the competition, which is now in its fifth-fifth year.

Book tickets to see the full exhibition, opening at the Museum on 18 October 2019.

Lucky break by Jason Bantle

Highly Commended 2019, Urban Wildlife

A raccoon pokes her face out of a 1970s Ford Pinto on a deserted farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. In the back seat, her five playful kits trill with excitement. It was a sentiment shared by Jason, waiting silently in a nearby hide, who had been hoping for this chance every summer for several years.

The only access into the car was through the small hole in the cracked safety glass of the windscreen. The gap was blunt‑edged but too narrow a fit for a coyote (the primary predator of raccoons in the area), making this an ideal place for a mother raccoon to raise a family.

Sleeping like a Weddell by Ralf Schneider

Highly Commended 2019, Black and White

Hugging its flippers tight to its body, the Weddell seal closed its eyes and appeared to fall into a deep sleep off Larsen Harbour, South Georgia. Weddell seals are the world's most southerly breeding mammals, populating inshore habitats around the Antarctic continent.

Reaching lengths of up to 3.5 metres (11½ feet), their large bodies are covered in a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm above and below the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. Feeding mainly on large fish, Weddell seals are impressive divers capable of descending to more than 500 metres (1,640 feet), with high reserves of the oxygen‑binding protein myoglobin in their muscles. This helps them to hunt under water for long periods, sometimes more than an hour. 

The climbing dead by Frank Deschandol

Highly Commended 2019, Plants and Fungi

On a night-time fieldtrip in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, Frank spotted this bizarre-looking weevil clinging to a fern stem. Its glazed eyes showed it was dead, and the three antennae-like projections growing out of its thorax were the ripe fruiting bodies of a 'zombie' fungus.

Spreading inside the weevil while it was alive, the parasitic fungus had taken control of its muscles and compelled it to climb. Fuelled by the weevil's insides, the fungus then started to grow fruiting bodies topped by capsules that would release a multitude of tiny spores to infect new prey. Similar fungi are known to parasitize other insects.

Touching trust by Thomas P Peschak

Highly Commended 2019, Wildlife Photojournalism

A curious young grey whale approaches a pair of hands reaching down from a tourist boat. In San Ignacio Lagoon, on the coast of Mexico's Baja California, baby grey whales and their mothers actively seek contact with people for a head scratch or back rub. The lagoon is one of three that comprise a grey whale nursery and sanctuary, a key winter breeding ground for this eastern North Pacific population of grey whales.

Whaling left the western population near extinction and wiped out the North Atlantic one. Persecution may also have led to the whales' aggression towards boats and, in San Ignacio, a long‑lasting fear among local fishermen. But since the 1970s, the trust between whales and humans has built up, and today many females actively encourage their calves to interact with people.

In San Ignacio Lagoon, a World Heritage Site, whale‑watching is carefully managed by the community, with limited boats, no winter fishing and interaction only if the whales choose it. Just a few years ago, the community also won a lengthy battle to stop a global corporation building a salt plant in the lagoon.

Cool drink by Diana Rebman

Highly Commended 2019, Behaviour: Birds

On a bitterly cold morning on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, Diana came across a flock of long-tailed tits and marsh tits gathered around a long icicle, taking turns to nibble the tip. Here, a Hokkaido long-tailed tit hovers for a split second to take its turn to nip off a beakful.

If the sun came out and a drop of water formed, the tit next ‘in line’ would sip rather than nip. The rotation of activity was so fast-moving that it almost seemed choreographed. Two days later, Diana returned and found that, with temperatures still at -20°C, the icicle remained and tits were still drinking from it.

But when the sun came out and the ice began to melt, one long‑tailed tit chose to cling to the icicle instead of hovering. That instantly brought the performance to an end, as the icicle cracked and then crashed to the ground. 

Beach waste by Matthew Ware

Highly Commended 2019, Wildlife Photojournalism

From a distance, the beach scene at Alabama's Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge looked appealing: blue sky, soft sand and a Kemp's ridley sea turtle. But as Matthew and the strandings patrol team got closer they could see the fatal noose around the turtle’s neck attached to the washed-up beach chair.

The Kemp's ridley is not only one of the smallest sea turtles at just 65 centimetres long, it is also the most endangered. Over the past 50 years, human activities including egg and meat consumption and incidental capture in fishing nets have greatly reduced its numbers.

Today, despite protection of its limited nesting sites and a requirement for trawlers to use turtle-excluders, it is still under threat. But as Matthew witnesses on his daily nesting-patrol, another danger is injury or drowning resulting from the huge amount of discarded fishing gear and rubbish that ends up in the ocean.  

Big cat and dog spat by Peter Haygarth

Highly Commended 2019, Behaviour: Mammals

In a rare encounter, a lone male cheetah is set upon by a pack of African wilddogs. Both species have disappeared from much of their former ranges, with fewer than 7,000 left of each, mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

Peter had been following the dogs by vehicle as they hunted in Zimanga Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. A warthog had just escaped the pack when the leading dogs came across the big cat. At first, the dogs were wary, but as the rest of the 12-strong pack arrived, their confidence grew, and they began to encircle the cat, chirping with excitement.

The elderly cheetah hissed and lunged back at the mob, his left ear tattered, the right one pinned back in the ruckus. As dust flew in the morning light, Peter kept his focus on the cat's face. In a few minutes the spat was over as the cheetah fled.

The hair-net cocoon by Minghui Yuan

Highly Commended 2019, Behaviour: Invertebrates

Standing side-on to the wall of the WC, his face and camera pressed against it, Minghui focused on the remarkable cocoon of a Cynamoth pupa. A more typical location would be a tree trunk or rock, as in the rainforest of Xishuangbanna, southwest China.

It had used its long, hair-like setae to weave the delicate cocoon cage, just four centimetres long, inside which it would pupate.

The cage must provide protection against some predators but probably not against the wasps that parasitize it. Once in its cage, the caterpillar spits out silk, spinning almost invisible threads to suspend itself, head first from the cage while it turns into a pupa. 

If penguins could fly by Eduardo Del Álamo

Highly Commended 2019, Behaviour: Mammals

A Gentoo penguin - the fastest underwater swimmer of all penguins - flees for its life as a leopard seal bursts out of the water. Eduardo was expecting it. He had spotted the penguin, resting on a fragment of broken ice. But he had also seen the leopard seal patrolling off the Antarctic Peninsula coast, close to the gentoo's colony on Cuverville Island.

Moments later, the seal surged out of the water, mouth open. The penguin made it off the ice, but the seal now seemed to turn the hunt into a game. Leopard seals are formidable predators. They hunt almost anything, from fish to the pups of other seal species. And they also play with their prey, as in this instance, with the leopard seal pursuing the penguin for more than 15 minutes before finally catching and eating it.

Canopy hangout by Carlos Pérez Naval

Highly Commended 2019, Young Wildlife Photographers: 11-14 years old

When Carlos's family planned a trip to Panama's Soberanía National Park, sloths were high on their must-see agenda. They were not disappointed. For several days, from the observation deck of the park’s canopy tower, Carlos could photograph not only birds but also this brown-throated three-toed sloth. The adult male hung out in a cecropia tree, resting but occasionally moving, slowly, along a branch to reach new leaves. 

This year's exhibition opens on 18 October and runs until summer 2020. Book tickets now.

The new portfolio, with the full collection of 100 images, is available to pre-order. Reserve your copy of Portfolio 29 now.