A lone polar bear stares out from a drifting ice sheet, a colony of penguins race across an Antarctic sea, and a gazelle calf runs for its life from four eager cheetah cubs -- this is merely a sampling of the best images submitted for the 2012 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.
The winners were announced on Wednesday night at a gala at the Natural History Museum in London where an exhibition featuring 100 of the best photos will open this Friday. The annual exhibit will then travel throughout the UK and around the world in the coming months.
The highly anticipated competition is now in its 48th year, and it attracted more than 48,000 entries from 98 countries. Of those vying for the top prize, it was Canadian Paul Nicklen’s “Bubble-jetting emperors” that ultimately won the judges over.
To capture the chaotic scene, the National Geographic magazine photographer waited motionless on the edge of Antarctica’s Ross Sea for a colony of penguins to emerge.
“It was a fantastic sight. Hundreds launched themselves out of the water and on to the ice above me,” Nicklen explained. “It was a moment that I felt incredibly fortunate to witness and one I’ll never forget.”
Competition judge and esteemed underwater photographer David Doubilet explained that the image “draws us in for a glimpse of the emperor penguin’s private world at the end of the Earth.”
“I love this image, because it shows perfectly organized, infinite chaos,” he said. “My eyes linger over it trying to absorb everything that’s going on here.”
The judges named UK teenager Owen Hearn the Veolia Environnement Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image, “Flight paths,” featuring a red kite bird mirroring a distant plane.
Both images were selected from 18 individual category winners depicting nature at its most supreme, including animal behavior, landscapes and environments. Amateurs and professionals alike were invited to submit photos, and all were judged by a panel of industry-recognized professionals for their creativity, artistry and technical complexity.
Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide. Visit www.nhm.ac.uk/wildphoto for more information.
Photo: Paul Nicklen/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
This was the image Paul had been so hoping to get: a sunlit mass of emperor penguins charging upward, leaving in their wake a crisscross of bubble trails. The location was near the emperor colony at the edge of the frozen area of the Ross Sea, Antarctica. It was into the only likely exit hole that he lowered himself. He then had to wait for the return of the penguins, crops full of icefish for their chicks. Paul locked his legs under the lip of the ice so he could remain motionless, breathing through a snorkel so as not to spook the penguins when they arrived. Then it came: a blast of birds from the depths. They were so fast that, with frozen fingers, framing and focus had to be instinctive. “It was a fantastic sight,” says Paul, “as hundreds launched themselves out of the water and onto the ice above me -- a moment that I felt incredibly fortunate to witness and one I’ll never forget.”
Photo: Owen Hearn/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
Harvest time at Owen’s grandparents’ farm draws in the birds of prey to feed on the fleeing small mammals, and it also attracts Owen, with his camera at the ready. "Seeing this red kite with an airplane in the distance was a moment I couldn’t miss," says Owen. The shot is symbolic for him for two reasons. It was taken at the center of the Bedfordshire site chosen for London’s third airport back in the late 1960s. "Opposition to the planned airport stopped it going ahead, which is why I can photograph the wildlife on the farm today." At the same time, British red kites also faced extinction following centuries of persecution. But following reintroductions, numbers have increased dramatically, spreading east from the Chilterns.
Photo: Vladimir Medvedev/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
Vladimir knew something was watching him. Dawn was still hours away, but he could make out the outline of what looked like a small spiky bush. "Then, as I approached, I realized that the bush was in fact a beast." Vladimir, who was looking for nocturnal animals in Banff National Park, Canada, lay down on the ground and waited for the porcupine to feel at ease again. "I had to use a slow shutter speed and maximum aperture opening, along with a narrow flash beam,’ he says. "I was lucky that light from the boathouse added warmth to the scene on that cold morning and illustrated just how dark it was." After a few minutes, the porcupine stood up on its back legs, took one last look at Vladimir and ambled off toward the wood, melting into the darkness.
Photo: Steve Winter/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
This is a very special tiger. He is one of fewer than 400 to 500 wild, critically endangered Sumatran tigers. It was a huge challenge for Steve to photograph one, as those that have escaped poaching and forest clearance are mostly confined to patches of forests or the mountains and are extremely shy. A former tiger hunter, now employed as a park ranger, advised Steve where to set up his camera trap. But the challenge remained to position the remote-control camera and lights in exactly the right position so the tiger would be lit center-stage in front of a backdrop of forest habitat. The seemingly unstoppable growth of oil-palm plantations in Sumatra and continuing poaching for body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine indicate that this subspecies of tiger is destined to become extinct in the wild, as have its Javan and Balinese relatives.
Photo: Kim Wolhuter/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
Kim has been filming African wild dogs at Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve for more than four years. He knows one pack intimately. "I have traveled with them, on foot, in the pack itself, running with them as they hunt. It’s a privilege, and it’s given me a true insight into their life." Kim has also witnessed firsthand the many threats that have made African wild dogs endangered, including increased conflict with humans and domestic animals (poachers’ snares, habitat loss, traffic and disease). "At times, it’s heartwrenching," he says. "My mission is to dispel the myth that they’re a threat and help raise awareness of their plight." African wild dogs require huge territories, and so protecting them can protect entire ecosystems. When this picture was taken, the pack had traveled 2 1/2 miles to the Sosigi Pan, only to find it totally dried up. "The mosaic of mud seemed to epitomize the increasingly fragmented world this puppy is growing up in."
Photo: Anna Henly/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
Anna was on a boat in Svalbard -- an archipelago midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole -- when she saw this polar bear at around four in the morning. It was October, and the bear was walking on broken-up ice floes, seemingly tentatively, not quite sure where to trust its weight. She used her fisheye lens to make the enormous animal appear diminutive and create an impression of "the top predator on top of the planet, with its ice world breaking up." The symbolism, of course, is that polar bears rely almost entirely on the marine sea ice environment for their survival, and, year by year, increasing temperatures are reducing the amount of ice cover and the amount of time available for the bears to hunt marine mammals. Scientists maintain that the melting of the ice will soon become a major problem for humans as well as polar bears, not just because of rising sea levels but also because increasing sea temperatures are affecting the weather, sea currents and fish stocks.
Photo: Paul Nicklen/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
Paul was not the only mammal lying patiently in wait on the edge of the Ross Sea, Antarctica, to greet the explosion of emperor penguins. Leopard seals, measuring up to 11.5 feet long, were almost certainly lurking at the edge of the ice ready to grab a meal. The penguins were, therefore, exiting as fast as possible. They can skyrocket up to 7 feet high out of the water, landing well clear of the edge. "I also kept an eye out for leopard seals myself," says Paul. "I’d previously had one hit me square in the face when I was 15 feet from the ice edge, knocking me down and stunning me. Luckily, it realized that I wasn’t a penguin and slipped back into the icy water." The penguins’ survival is vital to that of their two-month-old chicks, hungrily waiting some 6 miles away at the Cape Washington colony. With full bellies, the penguins toboggan to the colony, where they regurgitate the food to their respective single chicks. They then head back to the Ross Sea for another three-week stint at sea.
Photo: Grégoire Bouguereau/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
When a female cheetah caught but didn’t kill a Thomson’s gazelle calf and waited for her cubs to join her, Grégoire guessed what was about to happen. He’d spent nearly a decade studying and photographing cheetahs in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, and he knew that the female’s behavior meant one thing: A hunting lesson was due to begin. The female moved away, leaving the calf lying on the ground near her cubs. "At first, the cubs took no notice of it. But when it struggled jerkily to its feet, "the cubs’ natural predatory instincts were triggered," says Grégoire. "Each cub’s gaze locked onto the calf as it made a break for freedom." The lesson repeated itself several times, with the cubs ignoring the calf when it was on the ground and catching it whenever it tried to escape -- "an exercise that affords the cubs the chance to practice chases in preparation for the time they’ll have to do so for real."
Photo: Luciano Candisani/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
Motionless but alert, a yacare caiman waits "like a small tyrannosaurus" for fish to come within snapping reach, says Luciano. Caimans are usually seen floating passively on the surface. Under the water, it’s another story. It’s this secret life that has fascinated Luciano ever since he first came face to face with a caiman while snorkeling. Once he had recovered from the shock, he realized that the reptile was neither aggressive nor fearful and that he could approach it. Luciano now regularly documents the underwater life of caimans in the shallow, murky waters of Brazil’s Pantanal (the biggest wetland in the world), which contains the largest single crocodilian population on Earth. Caimans can grow to be 10 feet in length. Most aren’t aggressive, but some individuals can be. "The safest way to get close is when they are concentrating on a shoal of fish," says Luciano. "While I was concentrating on this caiman emerging from the gloom, I had a field biologist with me all the time." The result was "the picture that’s been in my imagination since my father first showed me a caiman 25 years ago."
Photo: Eve Tucker/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012
Some of the tallest buildings in London surround the docklands at the heart of the business and financial district of Canary Wharf. As Eve walked along the wharf, a bird caught her eye. It was a black-headed gull, of which there are many in the city. But this one was resting on a very remarkable area of water. Eve realized that she was looking at reflections of the straight lines of the nearby office block, distorted into moving swirls. "The effect was so unusual -- it gave a beautiful setting for an urban wildlife image." Like all true photographers, Eve had noticed what others most often fail to see, even when it’s right in front of them.