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French underwater photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta has won the Grand Title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
His winning image, titled Creation, captures the rare sight of camouflage groupers leaving a mating frenzy which occurs once a year under a full moon.
Camouflage groupers can be found in many oceans around the world. They live in shallow reefs where their mottled brown bodies are invisible among the rocks and corals.
One such location is a lagoon in Fakarava, French Polynesia, which Laurent and his team have frequented during mating season for the past five years.
This mating season is fleeting, lasting only one hour under a full moon and with a waning tide. Tens of thousands of camouflage groupers gather in one area. The water becomes a vigorous kaleidoscope of brown and white spotted bodies within a milky cloud of eggs and sperms.
Rosamund 'Roz' Kidman Cox, writer, editor and Chair of the Jury, says, 'The image works on so many levels: it is surprising, energetic and intriguing, and has an otherworldly beauty. It also captures a magical moment - a truly explosive creation of life - leaving the tail end of the exodus of eggs hanging for a moment like a symbolic question mark.'
But this extraordinary event also attracts attention of a different kind. After dark, grey reef sharks join the mix, hunting in packs and devouring as many camouflage groupers as possible.
Dive beneath the waves with Wildlife Photographer of the Year 57 winner Laurent Ballesta.
However, sharks are not the only threat to this usually solitary species. Camouflage groupers are eaten around the world, particularly in the far east where they are served as highly-prized seafood dishes.
In recent years, fishermen have started targeting spawning sites, causing a steep decline in grouper numbers. Camouflage grouper populations are threatened globally and are now listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List.
Fortunately, work is being done to protect this species. For example, the lagoon where Laurent captured this enigmatic scene is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This protection allows groupers to thrive with only natural predators keeping the population in check.
Dr Doug Gurr, Director of the Museum, says, 'This year's Grand Title winner reveals a hidden underwater world, a fleeting moment of fascinating animal behaviour that very few have witnessed.
'In what could be a pivotal year for the planet, with vital discussions taking place at COP 15 [the UN Convention on Biological Diversity] and COP 26 [the UN Climate Change Conference], Laurent Ballesta's Creation is a compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not address humanity's impact on our planet. The protection provided to this endangered species by the biosphere reserve highlights the positive difference we can make.'
Dome home captures a tent spider weaving its web, illuminated by a passing tuk-tuk. This unique perspective won ten-year-old Vidyun R Hebbar the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021 award.
Vidyan lives in Bengaluru, India, and enjoys capturing everyday city creatures that are often overlooked.
Vidyan first entered the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition two years ago, with another spectacular photo of a spider which earned him the Highly Commended title.
'It's such an imaginative way of photographing a spider,' says Roz. 'The picture is perfectly framed, the focus is spot on. You can see the spider's fangs and the crazy weave of the trap. The threads are like some delicate nerve network linked to the spider's feet. But the really clever bit is the addition of a creative backdrop - the bright colours of a motorised rickshaw.'
Dr Natalie Cooper, a jury member and a researcher at the Museum, says, 'The jury loved this photo from the beginning of the judging process. It is a great reminder to look more closely at the small animals we live with every day, and to take your camera with you everywhere. You never know where that award-winning image is going to come from.'
This year's competition saw 19 categories including three new groups: oceans, wetlands and natural artistry. The two winners, who were revealed via an online ceremony, were selected out of more than 50,000 entries and 95 countries.
The categories celebrate the captivating beauty of the natural world and shine a spotlight on crucial ecosystems, many of which are endangered.
Each entry was judged anonymously by a panel of experts for its originality, narrative, technical excellence and ethical practice.
The exhibition will open at the Museum on 15 October 2021, followed by an international tour starting with the UK and including Denmark, Canada, the USA, Australia and more.