Haunting image of underwater whale graveyard wins coveted award

Thomas Bywater
Thomas Bywater

Writer and Multimedia Producer

A lone diver among an icy graveyard of whale bones has emerged as the top image in Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024.

The winning photograph titled Whale Bones made the biggest splash in a pool of more than 6500 images, submitted to the open nature photography award. Seen through the shutter of Alex Dawson from Sweden, the image showed an eerie discovery beneath the ice in Tasiilaq harbour, in southern Greenland. Dawson’s image shows the remains of the indigenous whaling tradition, which leaves the giant bones at sea to be picked clean by underwater invertebrates.

Judges said the giants’ graveyard showed not only the outsized impact of humans on the natural world but also the determination of the winning photographer to persevere in freezing temperatures.

“Whale Bones was photographed in the toughest conditions,” said Alex Mustard, panel chair for UPY 2024. The free-diver is the sole witness to the impact of whaling and human consumption in the remote harbour. Mustard said there was a clear moral to the chilly diving image.

“Our way needs to change to find a balance with nature,” he said.

Whale Bones.  Photo / Alex Dawson
Whale Bones. Photo / Alex Dawson

Cetaceans dominated the awards with images of whales topping multiple awards categories.

Spanish diver Rafael Fernandez Caballero took home two titles - a close up of a Pacific Bryde’s whale for Grey Whale Connection took gold in the Portrait category and a second image The End Of A Baitball won the Behaviour category for its depiction of another whale swallowing hundreds of kilograms of tiny sardines in one mouthful.

Judge Peter Rowlands described the toothy picture as “absolutely jaw dropping”. Backlit in the waters of Baja California Sur, Mexico, Rowlands said it was perfectly “posed and composed at the peak of the action”.

The End Of A Baitball. Photo / Rafael Fernandez Caballero
The End Of A Baitball. Photo / Rafael Fernandez Caballero

Young Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year was won by Lisa Stengel, for her split-second shot of mahi mahi feeding.

“Until this year I’d hardly ever [seen] a photo of a mahi mahi, now Lisa has photographed one hunting, action that plays out in the blink of an eye,” said judge Alex Mustard.

The image with the largest impact was of another whale, in the Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year award, sponsored by the Save Our Seas Foundation.

Window of Opportunity. Photo /  Lisa Stengel
Window of Opportunity. Photo / Lisa Stengel

The Image titled Saving Goliath showed a crowd of beachgoers around a beached sperm whale. One of the estimated 20,000 whales that are stranded and killed every year, the shot by Portuguese photographer Nuno Sá, was a harrowing beach drone photo at the popular Costa da Caparica.

Rowlands said the “isn’t supposed to be an easy category” to judge but the mastery of Sá's image and “visually pleasing” composition meant it was hard not to look away.

The 65,000 images were whittled down to just 30 to form the UPY exhibition. They will go on to be displayed in museums, science centres and public spaces from March 2 starting with the Go Diving Show in Stoneleigh UK and the Sydney Showground from September 28.

Saving Goliath. Photo / Nuno Sá
Saving Goliath. Photo / Nuno Sá