If you ever need a reminder that sex is perfectly natural, you need only look to the Animal Kingdom. Where it perhaps gets a little freaky is out in the deep blue sea, and the recent winners from the 2021 Ocean Art Contest captured this in all its NSFW wonder.
Best of Show and first place Marine Life Behavior was awarded to Luc Rooman for the photo “Snoeken” (pictured above), showing two lip-locked pike seen during a night dive at the Domein Muisbroek site near Antwerp, Belgium. While the two were actually fighting rather than getting it on, we all know how one passionate interaction can spill into another.
In case you’ve ever wondered what mating seahorses look like, one of PT Hirschfield’s two prize-winning photos in the Compact Behavior category is here to help, showing two Bigbelly seahorses engaged in a pre-mating dance ("Mating Seahorses"). These elaborate performances can last for several days – and impressively, the photographer was able to capture the moment the female transferred her eggs into the male’s pouch.
“It was exhilarating to finally cross this special act of seahorse egg transfer (which lasted only a few brief moments) from my underwater photography Bucket List,” said Hirschfield in a statement.
Passions were high too in their 3rd Place Compact Behavior entry – "Mating Southern Keeled Octopuses" – capturing two mollusks mating in the Mornington Peninsula’s “Octopuses Garden”. Here, vast numbers of pale octopus couples can be found, but this was the first time Hirschfield had been able to catch two on camera in the act.
“It was also the first time I've ever seen octopuses mating with a shell between them,” they said in a statement. “When I first spotted them from a distance, the male was sitting atop of the shell containing the female."
"I wondered what would happen if I slowly approached the shell. I was surprised to see the male mirroring my movement. When I got very close to the shell, the male climbed onto it again and inserted his hectocotylus mating arm into the waiting female below, allowing me to get a very close and intimate shot of the action.”
Now that’s our kind of tool use.
Steamy scenes aside, the winning entries contained some breathtaking shots showing the underwater world in all its colorful, confusing, and comical wonder. Here are a few more of our favorites:
We also got to see the wondrous outcome of when two become one in a dazzling shot called "Future Generations" which scooped second place in the Nudibranch category. In it, we see a Chromodoris luterosa sea slug trailing vibrant eggs, captured on camera by Virginia Salzedo.
“Guarding Eggs” by Julian Hsu scooped second place for Marine Life Behavior, showing a yellow pygmy goby shielding its eggs beneath a black sponge in Anilao, Batangas, in the Philippines.
As far as egg protection goes, the female gloomy octopus starring in Louise Nott’s winning photo “Festoons” (third place Marine Life Behavior) got a little more creative with her future offspring, opting to wear her eggs like accessory ribbons.
No ocean photography competition would be complete without some blackwater diving magic, and Fabien Michenet certainly delivered here winning Honorable Mention Place Blackwater with the shot “Juvenile Deep-Sea Anglerfish”.
On the topic of fish that look more like alien invasions, Steven Kovacs' “Spotfin Flounder” (Honorable Mention Blackwater) is a humorous insight into the greedy nature of larval lobsters. Here, one can be seen holding four larval acorn worms for snacks.
And no creature better represents invasions than that of an invasive species, like the lionfish captured in Catherine Holmes’ shot “Reef Protection” (Honorable Mention Underwater Conservation).
These fish are thought to have been introduced to the Atlantic by humans and have since proliferated to devastating effects. Now, invasivores are trying to see if humans can eat their way out of the problem we created by turning invasive species into culinary delicacies. Lionfish sushi, anyone?
You can see all of the winners from the 2021 Ocean Art Contest here.