Here at Nature Picture Library, we were over the moon when one of our contributors, American photographer Karine Aigner, was this month announced as the 2022 Grand Title Winner in Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. Karine’s remarkable image “A Big Buzz” shows a ball of cactus bees vying for a mate over the hot sand on a Texas ranch. In her bee-level close-up, all except one of the insects are males. The object of their affections, a single female, is unseen at the centre of the ball. Cactus bees, like many of their buzzing brethren, are threatened by habitat destruction, pesticides, and climate change, as well as farming practices that disrupt their nesting grounds.
Karine is the fifth woman in the competition’s fifty-eight-year history to be awarded the Grand Title award. Her image was one of 38,575 entries from 93 countries. She also won the Photojournalist Story Award for her image series “The Cuban Connection”, which delves into the relationship between Cuban culture and songbirds. On winning the prestigious title, Karine says:
“I don’t have the words to share how it felt. None do justice to The Moment; the electrical buzz, the magic, surrounded by my family, and dear friends who have supported me through thick and thin. It is a dream realized. It is a moment I will hold onto forever, that I wish I could bottle. To be recognized for what you do, by the tribe you care about—is truly indescribable, humbling, and empowering. As only the fifth woman – in 58 years of this competition – to win the Grand Title, I just want to say THIS ONE IS FOR THE GIRLS!!!! For all you female identifying photographers out there who never thought they could. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not possible. It is. it absolutely IS possible – you just have to go and do it.”
Karine is joined by a host of other Nature Picture Library photographers who were also recognised in the competition. Read on to see the images (and the honoree’s smiling faces)!
Tony Wu (USA/Japan) was the winner of the Underwater category with his image “Shooting Star”. It shows a male starfish standing on his tippy-toes as he releases streams of sperm into the ocean. Male starfish eject their gametes at the same time as the females release millions of tiny eggs into the water. This synchronous spawning is fundamental to breeding success, though the exact triggers are not well understood.
Tony says the starfish in this phantasmic scene “moved very slowly, almost like a dance in very slow motion”. He hopes his image will convey the message that “even run-of-the-mill organisms like this starfish have their special moments. There is magic in all life. We just have to pay attention.”
Clay Bolt (USA) was Highly Commended in the Urban Wildlife category for his image ‘California Queen’, which shows a queen Vosnesensky bumblebee perfectly framed by the Golden Gate bridge. One of about 46 bumblebee species in North America, the Vosnesensky bumblebee is an important pollinator of native flowers. It helps to preserve natural ecosystems, thriving where there is little pesticide use.
Clay says: “I’m thrilled to receive the recognition for this photo, but most importantly it provides an opportunity to draw attention to the challenges these insects face daily through habitat loss, exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides, fungicides, and climate change. According to the IUCN’s Bumble Bee Specialist Group, one out of four species of North American bumble bee is at risk of extinction, and even common species such as Vosnesensky’s bumble bee are beginning to show signs of decline. I often use this style of photography because it takes an animal that may be overlooked because of its small size and presents it large against well-known aspects of the human world, emphasizing its massive importance to life as we know it.”
Clay kindly agreed to pose with his image in the Nature Picture Library garden.
Juergen Freund (Germany / Australia) was Highly Commended in the Behaviour (Amphibians and Reptiles) category for his image of a banded sea krait headed for a lone mangrove tree – a regular hangout spot. To Juergen’s delight, snakes arrived from every direction, and he recalls how they were ‘swimming all over him’ to get to the tree.
Sea kraits are among the most venomous animals in the tropical Indo-Pacific region but are not aggressive and very rarely bite people. Unlike most sea snakes, they leave the water to mate, lay eggs, shed their skin and digest food. Sea kraits are able to crawl and climb and have paddle-like tails, which enable propulsion under water.
Juergen says: “This is my 11th time being awarded in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. It still excites me when one of my images ranks among the world’s best 100 nature shots of the year – especially with the explosive abundance these days of incredible nature images worldwide.”
Doug Gimesy (Australia) was Highly Commended in the Photojournalism category for his image “Wombat lockdown”. It shows Emily Small, founder of the Goongerah wombat orphanage, with two orphaned bare-nosed wombats (Landon, 6 months old, and Bronson, 7 months old) sleeping in a home-made pouch on her couch whilst she works in her Melbourne apartment. The image was taken during Covid-19 lockdown, when Emily was unable to get to the orphanage 450km away from her home. Instead, the wombats moved in with her. They sadly became orphans when their mothers were tragically killed by vehicle strikes. To help prepare them for a life in the wild Emily would let them nibble on grass and dirt she had brought from their natural habitat, and give them sticks to chew on; but they also liked to gnaw on her furniture!Doug says: “I hope the success of this image helps bring awareness to the situation (and difficulties) that some wildlife carers were facing as a result of the CoVid-19 restrictions, as well as the tragic (and often preventable) issue of wildlife road trauma.”To see more images, check out our story “My Lockdown Life with Three Baby Wombats”
Alex Mustard (UK) was Highly Commended in the Plants and Fungi category for his image “Seaweed Symmetry” The image, showing colourful fronds of bootlace seaweed reaching for the light, took planning and precise conditions. Finally, with a high tide, clear water, calm weather and sunshine, the conditions were perfect. Bootlace seaweed is hollow, allowing gas to accumulate towards its tip and keep it afloat.
Alex says: “I am very happy to be awarded with a photo of humble seaweed, and with a photo taken in British Seas. It is the 8th different category my photos have been awarded in down the years, which I think is good going for an underwater photographer!”
David Pattyn (Belgium / the Netherlands) was Highly Commended in the competition for his image “Eat up your feathers”. David has been photographing water birds for around 20 years. Last year, at the end of July, he was surprised to find a pair of Great crested grebes nesting about twenty metres from his floating hide. He waited for several mornings for the chicks to hatch, slipping into his hide before sunrise to avoid disturbing the family. This image was made when the third chick had just hatched and the adult grebe offered it a feather. The precise reason for this behaviour is unknown. Feathers have little nutritional value but scientists believe they might aid digestion by slowing the passage of food and helping the chicks regurgitate fish bones.
Wearing layers of wetsuits to stay warm, David watched unnoticed as the adults tirelessly fed their brood of stripy chicks. He says: “Because the birds were oblivious to my presence, I could photograph their natural behaviour, resulting in this intimate image. I was lucky that the jury liked it.”
Russell Laman (USA) was Highly Commended in the Oceans: The Bigger Picture category for his image “Oceans: Past Present and Future.” In the image a Californian sea lion lies dead on the seafloor whilst a swarm of sea nettles drift above. Russel’s lips were the only part of his body that was exposed and were stung countless times by the trailing tentacles of the jellyfish. “As I got into position to take a photo, a live sea lion appeared out of the gloom and swam right over to its dead friend,” says Russel. “The sea lion peered down questioningly for several seconds before swimming back the way it came.”
Climate change threatens the future of the California sea lion, as warmer waters push their prey to colder climates. At the same time these rises in global temperatures are increasing jellyfish numbers, which in turn is disrupting marine ecosystems already under pressure. The result could be a world where jellyfish become increasingly dominant and marine megafauna dwindle into oblivion.
Mateusz Piesiak (Poland) won the Rising Star Portfolio Award for his wonderful series titled “A theatre of birds”. With the COVID -19 lockdown in place, Mateusz began exploring his local area in Poland, discovering “even a small pond or park in the city centre turned out to be a very good place for photographing wildlife”. He spent many hours researching and preparing, before he finally managed to realise the images, which in some cases had been in his mind ‘for days, months or even years’.
Suzi Eszterhas (USA) was Highly Commended for her image depicting an encounter between a sloth and a dog.
To reach the next clump of trees, the brown-throated sloth needed to descend to the ground and crawl. When it met this big dog and sensed danger, it froze. Suzi was fearful, as she remarks how ‘dogs often attack sloths’. Fortunately, this particular dog did no more than sniff. ‘It had recently taken part in a training programme run by the Sloth Conservation Foundation,’ Suzi explains, ‘so when the owners called it off, the dog obeyed’.
Charlie Hamilton James (UK) was awarded Highly Commended in the Behaviour: Mammals category for his image ‘The Moving Millions’, a drone shot that demonstrates the scale of the greatest migration on earth. Every year, almost 1.3 million wildebeest travel more than 2,800 kilometres in a circuit from Tanzania to Kenya and back. In Charlie’s image, the wildebeest look like tiny figures as they zig-zag through the savannah, chasing seasonal rains.
Charlie was also honoured in the Photojournalism category for a very different kind of wildebeest image, this time showing a ranger from Kenya’s Maasai Mara Conservancy removing a snare from an afflicted individual. Wildebeest are targeted by poachers with snares made from the wire rims of car tyres.
Markus Varesvuo (Finland) was awarded Highly Commended for his image ‘In the Footsteps of Reindeer.’ Lying on his front, his arm jammed into the snow for stability, Markus photographed a camouflaged rock ptarmigan as it peeked out of a reindeer hoofprint. Every winter Markus searches for these birds in the Arctic, where conditions range from winter wonderland to impossible blizzards. When the snow melts and refreezes, it forms an icy crust that prevents rock ptarmigans from reaching the berries and buds beneath. To overcome this issue, the rock ptarmigans follow the Sámi-owned reindeer, hopping into the patches of foliage cleared by their hooves.
We would also like to congratulate NPL photographers Ripan Biswas, Jo-Anne McArthur, David Maitland and Richard Robinson, who all scooped prizes for their images in the competition.
The 2022 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition is now open at Natural History Museum, London, UK and closes on Sunday 2 July 2023. Book your tickets here.