The Natural History Museum, London’s 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition has crowned its winner and the image is quite the eyebrow-raiser. The product of half a decade of perseverance on the part of French underwater photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta, his shot “Creation” depicts the conception of a future generation of groupers represented as a billowing cloud of sperm and eggs.
Avid wildlife documentary fans may recall Ballesta’s appearance in Blue Planet II’s Coral Reefs, an episode in which the “Making Of” section showed the grueling efforts of a team attempting to capture the mating behavior of groupers in French Polynesia. The annual spawning event for these fish poses unique obstacles for the underwater videographer and photographer, owing to the fact that it happens on a single evening, which isn’t all that easy for even ocean scientists to predict the date of. When it does finally kick off, you have to factor in swarms of grey reef sharks and you’ve got quite the challenge on your hands.
After the Blue Planet team missed the spawning event entirely (with only “the full moon in July” to go on, timing is tricky work), they returned a year later this time with a second team in tow: Laurent Ballesta’s Blancpain/National Geographic team. The camera operators had to dive decked out in chainmail so that they were protected from the reef sharks that could get a little too interested in the electric currents surrounding their camera equipment. In the end, the total footage, which spans less than an hour in the series, took five seasons of filming attempts.
Over his many years photographing and filming groupers and grey reef shark, Ballesta certainly succeeded in capturing the monumental spawning event in an arresting single image. A feat even more impressive in the context that a single grouper’s spawn takes just a few seconds, and that the entire congregation (made up of thousands) will be done in around an hour. Any mathematicians up to the challenge of estimating the likelihood of snapping this singular, swirling moment? Thought not.
“The image works on so many levels,” said chair of the judging panel, writer and editor, Rosamund ‘Roz’ Kidman Cox OBE in a statement sent to IFLScience. "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.”
Among the other award-winning entries is a ghost pipefish in the tangle of a feather star, mesmerizing silk spinning, and sobering scenes of human's impact on animals, from a grey seal wrapped in rope to a performing elephant. You can see these and the other winners at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London from 15 October.
Feeling inspired? The 2022 competition opens for entries on October 18, 2021, and closes on December 9, 2021. Time to flip through those portfolios!