It’s been a year many would choose to forget – and one that will never be forgotten. But even amidst a global pandemic, flowers blossomed, birds sang and bees buzzed. As our cities fell silent, the voices of nature were as loud as ever in the forests and fields.
At a time when people all over the globe were forced to abandon their travel plans and stay at home, Nature Picture Library photographers chose to ‘grasp the nettle’ and focus their lenses on the places where they live. In the UK, Ann and Steve Toon found solace in their local wildflower meadow. In Melbourne, Doug Gimesy swapped the Australian bush for an inner city apartment, where a trio of rescued baby wombats were being raised. And in The Bahamas, watching the ocean through the eyes of a drone helped Shane Gross to breathe through dark and scary times.
The photos are a potent reminder that nature is never too far away, and somewhere we can find refuge in times of uncertainty. What is most striking is the sense of stillness and calm which so many of these images covey, almost as if the photographers were searching for an antidote to these profoundly unsettling times, and wanted to share that feeling with us, too.
We hope these images bring a little bit of light and joy to the end of your year.
[BELOW LEFT] POTSDAM, GERMANY: A cherry tree explodes into blossom in spring. Captured through the lens of Sandra Bartocha, who creates texture by blending multiple frames together in-camera, the image looks more like an impressionistic painting than a photograph. Bartocha used 10 separate exposures to create the final piece. She says that her aim is “to transfer what I feel into an image where the audience connects.”
[ABOVE RIGHT] BAHAMAS, CARIBBEAN: Waves crashing on a beach carry sediments back out to sea. Viewed from an aerial perspective, the swirling shapes create mesmerising patterns. The image was taken during a complete lockdown in the Bahamas, which photographer Shane Gross describes as “a dark and scary time.” But being able to see the ocean through the eyes of his drone, without having to leave his home, was a source of great comfort: “It was as if the ocean was breathing and reminding me to breath. Watching the calm rhythm of the waves while creating this image helped me cope with the stress of 2020.”
[BELOW LEFT] HOKKAIDO, JAPAN: Long-tailed tits need a lot of energy to fuel their aerial acrobatics. So when a calorie-dense treat like frozen maple syrup presents itself, the birds are quick to take advantage. They move so rapidly that it is impossible to discern the finer points of their sugar-addiction with the naked eye. Capturing this moment—just before the bird breaks off a piece of ice-candy from a yellow maple tree—was an exercise in patience for photographer Tony Wu. After many failed attempts, a lot of luck, and just a touch of frostbite, both he and the bird were able to satisfy their cravings.
[ABOVE RIGHT] TROMS, NORTHERN NORWAY: A group of European shags rest along the coast of Troms, Northern Norway. The shag is a common breeder on Norwegian bird cliffs, but when they’re not in the nest, these ocean-going birds feed at sea, travelling many nautical miles from their roosting sites in pursuit of cod, sandeels and other fresh fish. In this image, captured by Espen Bergersen, a shag comes in to land after a long day of fishing. With its wings spread against the colourful palette of a northern sunset, the bird’s position on the pinnacle of the rock seems to suggest a successful day’s venture.
THE UNDERWATER WORLD
[BELOW LEFT] KYUSHU, JAPAN: When it comes to seahorses, the miracle of birth has a twist: it’s the males who take on the role of pregnancy and birth. Pictured here is the moment a Korean seahorse catapults his babies—some still in the foetal position—from his abdomen. Like human mothers in labour, seahorse dads give birth through a series of muscular contractions. Before the male can get pregnant, he will pair up with a female using an elaborate courtship ritual that photographer Tony Wu likens to a dance. “It is the first time I have witnessed fish exhibit affection for one another,” he says.
(For more on this story, check out our blog here).
[ABOVE RIGHT] NORTHUMBERLAND, UK: A female grey seal rests at the ocean’s surface, just off the Farne Islands, in north east England. “She looked heavily pregnant to me,” says photographer Alex Mustard, who took the image in September. Grey seals usually give birth from October onwards, so he may have been on to something! The female pictured here was very accepting of Mustard’s presence. “She definitely knew I was right next to her, but she allowed me to take this close-up shot before I let her be. I like the angle, looking up through the surface to see the whiskered nose, pointing up to at the sun.”
[BELOW LEFT] SCOTLAND, UK: Pine martens are mostly nocturnal creatures, but in forests where there are fewer people, they can be out and about during the day—particularly in summer when females have hungry mouths to feed. This marten, running along a moss-covered wall on its way to a peanut feeder, was captured by Terry Whittaker using a camera trap. He wanted to show the marten in the context of its environment: a forestry plantation. The challenge, he says, was to balance the ambient light with the flash, used here to freeze the marten in action.
[ABOVE RIGHT] KARNATAKA, INDIA: The ancient village of Hampi once served as the capital of one of the Vijayanagara Empire. In the 16th-century, the village was razed to the ground by the Deccan sultanate and all that’s left today is the ruins of the last great Hindu Kingdom. In this underground temple, Yashpal Rathore photographed a more modern resident: A Schneider’s leaf-nosed bat. To get the image, he had to work in semi-darkness and knee-deep floodwater. But Rathore was determined to dispel the myths that tarnish a bat’s reputation. In 2020, a deep mistrust towards them resurfaced after they were linked to the emergence of COVID-19. “But bats don’t spread coronavirus,” argues Rathore. “Our disrespect for nature does.”
THE LITTLE THINGS
[BELOW LEFT] YORKSHIRE, UK: Two slender robberflies, heavy with dew, perch opposite each other in serendipitous symmetry. Although widespread in the southern half of Britain, this species is scarce further north, where the image was taken. The flies were spotted by Oliver Wright on his early morning dog walk. Over the course of the summer, he saw the flies perching together on several occasions, though he’d only ever seen them by themselves in previous years.
[ABOVE RIGHT] HERTFORDSHIRE, UK: With their bizarre life cycles and shapeshifting abilities, there aren’t many lifeforms as weird as slime moulds. For one thing, they’re not moulds. A lot of the time, they’re not even slimy. “The fact that you can find the same species pretty much anywhere on the planet is fascinating to me,” says Andy Sands, who spent months searching for slime moulds under dead logs in the woods around his Hertfordshire home. Many species, like the one pictured here, are only around 1mm tall, making it a challenge to photograph them. But modern photographic techniques such as focus stacking allowed Sands to reveal in surprising detail the weird world that exists underneath our feet.
(For more of Andy Sand’s close-up studies of slime moulds, check out our feature story ‘Studies in Slime’.)
[BELOW LEFT] NORTHUMBERLAND NATIONAL PARK, UK: “Chaotic, yet calming,” is how Ann & Steve Toon describe the upland hay meadow near their home. Confined to working on their local turf, the flourishing habitat turned out to be a revelation to them: “We’d often walked by admiring the mix of wildflowers, but never spent time in and amongst them, with insects humming constantly in our ears. During the Covid-19 lockdown we finally learned to slow down and fully appreciate the beneficial effects nature—and for that matter nature photography—can have on our physical and mental well-being, no matter where we find it.”
[ABOVE RIGHT] ARIZONA, USA: To reach this stand of saguaro cacti, Jack Dykinga had to skid and slide his four-wheel drive through a flooded arroyo (an intermittently dry creek that fills after heavy rain). He made the trip with the initial aim of photographing the Milky Way, but ended up staying for sunrise, only to receive an unexpected surprise: The optical effect arching through the sky in this image is known as a ‘glory’, and is caused by the sun burning off ground fog. Dykinga positioned himself so that the backscattered light framed the cacti like a halo. The moment, he says, was ample compensation for the damage the journey did to his truck.
[BELOW LEFT] DORSET, UK: Comet Neowise was discovered in late March 2020 by a space telescope, and was visible over the UK throughout July. One of the few comets of the 21st Century that could be seen with the naked eye, it attracted the attention of photographers, including Guy Edwardes, who set out to photograph it over Dorset’s much-loved Colmer’s Hill. “I was out every night that the comet was visible and it was clear enough to see it,” says Edwardes. “I used a star tracker to help me record maximum detail and sharpness in the comet and stars.” During its closest approach to Earth, Neowise was 64 million miles away – about 400 times further than the moon.
[ABOVE RIGHT] ASTURIAS, SPAIN: In 2020, rainbows gained a special significance as a symbol of hope in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. They shone from windows on both sides of the Atlantic, reminding us to stay positive and hopeful. In the midst of that trend, Juan Carlos Muñoz was in the Cantabrian Mountains, watching the changing weather conditions. While photographing the contrast of light and shade falling across the Massif of Las Ubinas, the rain from the approaching storm added a rainbow to the scene. Muñoz describes its appearance as a “photographer’s gift” that “captured all the prominence of sunset with its ephemeral light”.
ENVIRONMENT & CONSERVATION
2020 has seen more than its fair share of environmental catastrophes. In Australia, the year began with devastating bushfires that turned large swathes of the south-east into disaster zones. The Western U.S. also suffered a brutal fire season this summer. In Siberia, for the first time since records began, the main birthplace of Arctic sea ice – the Laptev sea – had yet to start freezing by late October. And in November, the US National Hurricane Center reported that the annual record for the number of major storms forming in the Atlantic has been shattered. Such developments are all in line with the expected impact of human-driven climate change.
2020 was also the year that COVID-19 impacted the lives of almost every person on the planet. The pandemic is an environmental catastrophe too, with scientists warning that our increasing tendency to exploit natural habitats increases the risk of zoonotic diseases jumping from animals to humans.
[BELOW LEFT] MALLACOOTA, AUSTRALIA: Weeks after bushfires destroyed their home in Mallacoota, Australia, an eastern grey kangaroo and her joey stop to look directly at photographer Jo-Anne McArthur. “Miles of eucalyptus plantations, once teeming with wildlife and birdsong, had fallen quiet,” says Jo-Anne, who also saw dehydrated and hungry koalas clinging to the burnt trees. “The silence was deafening; the earth crunchy and sand-like. The smell of smoke and decomposing bodies hung in the air.”
(You can see more images from the bushfires in our blog here).
[ABOVE RIGHT] BENIN, WEST AFRICA: The heads of hornbills and baboons for sale at a voodoo market outside of Ouidah. The wildlife trade became big news in 2020. Animal markets (particularly wet markets, where live animals are sold and butchered) are thought to be the source of pandemics such as COVID-19. Animal welfare groups have long called for a ban, also citing welfare concerns. The image, by Aaron Gekoski, is featured in his brand new book, Animosity.
< WALES, UK:
Making landfall in February, Storm Ciara was the third storm to wreak havoc in the UK this year. Winds were gusting at speeds of up to 93mph (150km/h) and people were out taking pictures of the waves battering the lighthouse and harbour wall in Porthcawl. One of those people was Guy Edwardes, who opted to include some of the other photographers in this frame. The choice of an 840mm lens compresses the perspective, making the figures appear to be in a much more dangerous position than they actually are. “I hope the image conveys the power and ferocity of the sea during a storm of this magnitude,” says Edwardes.
SVALBARD, NORWAY >
In a process known as ‘calving’, huge chunks of ice break away from the edge of the Lilliehook glacier on Spitsbergen Island. The 25th July 2020 was the hottest day ever recorded in Arctic Svalbard. The mercury hit 21.7 degrees Celsius in Longyearbyen, breaking a 41-year-old temperature record. Nowhere on the planet is heating faster than Svalbard. Since 1971, temperatures here have risen by 4C, five times faster than the global average.
< ARIZONA, USA
After raging for eighteen days, The Bighorn Fire consumed 120,000 acres until it was finally put out. A lightning strike on 5th June 2020 caused the blaze to take hold in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Super-dry grasses and bushes, coupled with the hot weather, provided ample fuel for the flames. With ash falling on his home, Jack Dykinga was compiling a list of what to pack in the evet of an evacuation. But the winds were in his favour, and when the pre-evacuation order was rescinded, he shifted his focus to photographing the emergency crews that were water-bombing the fire’s hot spots from the air. The arrival of the monsoon rains helped them get the fire under control and eventually put it out on 23rd July.
TENERIFE, CANARY ISLANDS >
Since coronavirus went global in early 2020, an estimated 200 billion disposable face masks and plastic gloves have been binned, entering into the environment. Although face masks have provided a means of protecting ourselves against the spread of the virus, they’re now beginning to show up on beaches and oceans around the world, adding to the already serious plastic pollution crisis. The masks’ elastic loops pose a particular threat, as they can entangle wildlife. Disposable plastic masks that end up at sea could take up to 450 years to fully decompose.
< MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA
In July, amid a second wave of coronavirus, the entire city of Melbourne was ordered back into lockdown. For wildlife carer Emily Small, that meant working from home in her top-floor apartment – with three baby wombats! Emily, the founder of the Goongerah Wombat Orphanage, typically travels between her job in Melbourne and the orphanage in East Gippsland. But with government orders to stay at home, and lockdown restrictions making long distance travel almost impossible, Emily had to relocate the orphaned wombats 450km west, to her inner-city apartment.
(For more on this story, check out our blog here).
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, GALAPAGOS >
In January, the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative mounted the most ambitious giant tortoise expedition to date. Their mission: to find descendants of the long-extinct Floreana and Pinta tortoises, and breed them to help restore these lost bloodlines to their original islands. Given the long lifespans of the reptiles in question, only our kids grandkids will be there to witness the results.
You can find out more in our photo story here.
MORE OF OUR FAVOURITES…
If you’d like to see more of our favourite images from the past year, you can view the full collection right here, or simply scroll the strip below. And from all of us at Nature Picture Library, we wish you a restful Christmas and happy fortunes in the coming year!