Playful seals and nuzzling bears star in the jaw-dropping images from the finalists of Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s 53rd competition. The judges must have had a tough time whittling down the finalists from almost 50,000 wildlife photography entries from professionals and amateurs across 92 countries.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. Prepare to be astonished by the wildlife photography here:

The Power of the Matriarch

David Lloyd, New Zealand/UK – Finalist 2017, Animal Portraits

At dusk, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, the herd of elephants was on their evening trek to a waterhole. As they got closer to David’s vehicle, he could see that the mellow light from the fast-setting sun was emphasizing every wrinkle and hair. When they were just a few metres away, he could see the deep ridges of their trunks, the mud-caked ears and the patina of dried dirt on their tusks. The elephants ambled by in near silence, peaceful and relaxed. The female leading the dozen-strong herd – probably the matriarch – looked straight at him, her eye a glowing amber dot in the heavy folds of skin. Her gaze was, he says, full of respect and intelligence – the essence of sentience.

The-power-of-the-matriarch Wildlife-Photographer-of-the-Year

Photo: David Lloyd/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Romance Among the Angels

Andrey Narchuk, Russia – Finalist 2017, Behaviour: Invertebrates

Andrey was on an expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East to photograph salmon but found himself surrounded by thousands of mating sea angels. He began photographing the pairs, 3 cms long and swirling around in the current. Sea angels are molluscs related to slugs and snails, without shells and with wing-like lobes used as swimming paddles. Each individual is both male and female, and here they are getting ready to insert their copulatory organs into each other to transfer sperm in synchrony.

One is slightly smaller than the other and they remained joined for 20 minutes. Both would go on to lay 30–40 tiny eggs after fertilization. Late summer is peak phytoplankton time, so there would be abundant food for the resulting larvae. To photograph them mating, Andrey had to battle against strong currents and avoid a wall of gill netting. When he was swept into the net and his equipment became snared, he was forced to make an emergency ascent – but not before he had got his shot. The following day, there wasn’t a single angel to be seen.

Romance among the angels © Andrey Narchuk - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Photo: Andrey Narchuk/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Insiders

Qing Lin, China – Finalist 2017, Under Water

While diving in the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, Qing noticed something strange about this particular cohabiting group. Each anemonefish had an extra pair of eyes inside its mouth – those of a parasitic isopod (a crustacean related to woodlice). An isopod enters a fish as a larva via its gills, moves to the fish’s mouth and attaches with its legs to the base of the tongue.

As the parasite sucks its host’s blood, the tongue withers, leaving the isopod attached in its place where it may remain for several years. With great patience and a little luck – the fish darted around unpredictably – Qing captured these three rather curious individuals momentarily lined up, eyes front, mouths open and parasites peeping out.

The insiders © Qing Lin - Wildlife Photographer of the Year - 1024 x 682

Photo: Qing Lin/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Sewage Surfer

Justin Hofman, USA – Finalist 2017, The Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image

Seahorses hitch rides on the currents by grabbing floating objects such as seaweed with their delicate prehensile tails. This tiny estuary seahorse ‘almost hopped’ from one bit of bouncing natural debris to the next, bobbing around near the surface on a reef near Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. But as the tide started to come in, the water contained more and more unnatural objects – mainly bits of plastic – and a film of sewage sludge covered the surface, all sluicing towards the shore.

The seahorse let go of a piece of seagrass and seized a long, wispy piece of clear plastic. As a brisk wind at the surface picked up, the seahorse took advantage of something that offered a more stable raft: a waterlogged plastic cottonbud. As Justin, the seahorse and the cottonbud spun through the ocean together, waves splashed into Justin’s snorkel. The next day, he fell ill. Indonesia has the world’s highest levels of marine biodiversity but is second only to China as a contributor to marine plastic debris – debris forecast to outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. On the other hand, Indonesia has pledged to reduce by 70 per cent the amount of waste it discharges into the ocean.

Sewage surfer © Justin Hofman - Wildlife Photographer of the Year - 1024 x 1024

Photo: Justin Hofman/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Bold Eagle

Klaus Nigge, Germany – Finalist 2017, Animal Portraits

After several days of constant rain, the bald eagle was soaked to the skin. Named after its fully-feathered white head, it eats various prey – captured, scavenged or stolen – with a preference for fish. At Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island in Alaska, USA, bald eagles gather to take advantage of the fishing industry’s leftovers. Used to people, the birds are bold.

‘I lay on my belly on the beach surrounded by eagles,’ says Klaus. ‘I got to know individuals, and they got to trust me.’ The species was declining dramatically until the 1960s, but reduced persecution, habitat protection and a ban on the pesticide DDT has led to its recovery. Some threats persist, including lead poisoning – US prohibition on lead ammunition (which ends up in animals the birds eat) has recently been overturned. As the eagle edged nearer, it towered over Klaus and the eagle’s expression created an intimate portrait.

Bold eagle © Klaus Nigge - Wildlife Photographer of the Year - 1024 x 791

Photo: Klaus Nigge/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Resplendent Delivery

Tyohar Kastiel, Israel – Finalist 2017, Behaviour: Birds

Tyohar watched the pair of resplendent quetzals for more than a week as they delivered fruits and the occasional insect or lizard to their two chicks. This pair had picked a tree in a partly logged area in the Costa Rican cloud forest of San Gerardo de Dota. The additional light made it easier for Tyohar to catch the iridescent colour of the male’s dazzling emerald and crimson body plumage and tail streamers, despite his fast, erratic flight pattern. But the light also made it easier for the birds to see Tyohar. So he would arrive before dawn, sit in the same place and wear the same jacket. The pair accepted his presence.

On the eighth day, the parents fed the chicks at dawn as usual but didn’t return for several hours. By 10am, the chicks were calling ravenously, and Tyohar began to worry. Then something wonderful happened. The male arrived with a wild avocado in his beak. He landed on a nearby branch, scanned around, and then flew to the nest. But instead of feeding the chicks, he flew back to his branch, the avocado still in his beak. Within seconds, one chick hopped out to the nearest perch and was rewarded. Moments later the female appeared and did exactly the same thing, and the second chick jumped out. The family then flew off together into the rainforest, leaving Tyohar bereft – and thrilled.

Resplendent delivery © Tyohar Kastiel - Wildlife Photographer of the Year - 1024 x 682

Photo: Tyohar Kastiel/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Swim Gym

Laurent Ballesta, France – Finalist 2017, Behaviour: Mammals

‘We were still a few metres from the surface, when I heard the strange noises,’ says Laurent. Suspecting Weddell seals – known for at least 34 different underwater call types – he approached slowly. It was early spring in east Antarctica, and a mother was introducing her pup to the icy water. The world’s most southerly breeding mammal, a Weddell seal gives birth on the ice and takes her pup swimming after a week or two.

The pair slid effortlessly between the sheets of the frozen labyrinth. Adults are accomplished divers, reaching depths of more than 600 metres (1,970 feet) and submerging for up to 82 minutes. Relying on light through the ice above, Laurent captured the curious gaze of the pup, the arc of its body mirroring that of its watchful mother.

Swim gym © Laurent Ballesta - Wildlife Photographer of the Year - 1024 x 682

Photo: Laurent Ballesta – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Winter Pause

Mats Andersson, Sweden – Finalist 2017, Black and White

The red squirrel closed its eyes for just a moment, paws together, fur fluffed, then resumed its search for food. Winter is a tough time for northern animals. Some hibernate, but not red squirrels. Mats walks every day in the forest near his home in southern Sweden, often stopping to watch the squirrels foraging in the spruce trees. Though their mainly vegetarian diet is varied, their winter survival is linked to a good crop of spruce cones, and they favour woodland with conifers. They also store food to help see them through lean times. On this cold, February morning, the squirrel’s demeanour encapsulated the spirit of winter, captured by Mats using the soft-light grain of black and white.

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Photo: Mats Andersson/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Saguaro Twist

Jack Dykinga, USA – Finalist 2017, Plants and Fungi

A band of ancient giants commands the expansive arid landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert National Monument in the US. These emblematic saguaro cacti – up to 200 years old – may tower at more than 12 metres (40 feet) but are very slow growing, some sprouting upwardly curved branches as they mature. The roots – aside from one deep tap – weave a maze just below the surface, radiating as far as the plant is tall, to absorb precious rainfall.

Most water is stored in sponge-like tissue, defended by hard external spines and a waxy-coated skin to reduce water loss. The surface pleats expand like accordions as the cactus swells, its burgeoning weight supported by woody ribs running along the folds. But the saturated limbs are vulnerable to hard frost – their flesh may freeze and crack, while the mighty arms twist down under their loads. As the gentle dawn light bathed the saguaro’s contorted form, Jack’s wide angle revealed its furrowed arms, perfectly framing its neighbours before the distant Sand Tank Mountains.

Saguaro twist © Jack Dykinga - Wildlife Photographer of the Year - 1024 x 726

Photo: Jack Dykinga/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Bear Hug

Ashleigh Scully, USA – Finalist 2017, Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 11-14 Years

After fishing for clams at low tide, this mother brown bear was leading her young spring cubs back across the beach. But one young cub just wanted to stay and play. Ashleigh had come to Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park intent on photographing the family life of brown bears. This rich estuary environment provides a buffet for bears: grasses in the meadows, salmon in the river and clams on the shore. A large number of families spend their summers here, and with plentiful food, they are tolerant of each other (though wary of males) and of people. Ashleigh says, ‘This young cub seemed to think that it was big enough to wrestle mum to the sand. As always, she played along, firm, but patient.’

Bear Hug ©-Ashleigh-Scully-Wildlife-Photographer-of-the-Year

Photo: Ashleigh Scully/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Glimpse of a Lynx

Laura Albiac Vilas, Spain – Finalist 2017, Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 11-14 Years

The elusive Iberian lynx is an endangered cat found only in two small populations in southern Spain. The Iberian lynx feeds almost entirely on rabbits, so a disease that wipes out the rabbit population can be catastrophic. Laura’s family travelled to the Sierra de Andújar Natural Park in search of the lynx – and struck lucky on their second day – a pair were relaxing not far from the road. Laura watched for an hour and a half. ‘They weren’t scared of people – they simply ignored us,’ says Laura. ‘I felt so emotional to be so close to them.’

Glimpse of a lynx © Laura Albiac Vilas - Wildlife Photographer of the Year - 1024 x 682

Photo: Laura Albiac Vilas – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Saved but Caged

Steve Winter, USA Finalist 2017 – The Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image

A back leg of this six-month-old Sumatran tiger cub was so badly mangled by a snare that it had to be amputated. He was lucky to survive at all, having been trapped for four days before being discovered in a rainforest in Aceh Province in Sumatra. The likelihood is that the snare was set by oil‐palm plantation workers to catch bushmeat (though tigers are also deliberately snared). This cub’s bones would have fetched a good price on the black market.

The population of Sumatran tigers is as low as 400–500 – the result of poaching to fuel the illegal trade in tiger parts for the Chinese-medicine market. Anti-poaching forest patrols are helping to stem the killing, partly by locating and removing snares (now illegal), which is how this cub came to be rescued. The cub, however, will spend the rest of his life in a cage in a Javan zoo. Today, there are probably more Sumatran tigers in zoos than there are left in the wild.

Saved-but-caged-©-Steve-Winter-Wildlife-Photographer-of-the-Year

Photo: Steve Winter/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Arctic Treasure

Sergey Gorshkov, Russia – Finalist 2017, Animal Portraits

Carrying its trophy from a raid on a snow goose nest, an Arctic fox heads for a suitable burial spot. June is bonanza time for the foxes of Wrangel Island in the Russian Far East. Lemmings are the basic diet for Arctic foxes, but Wrangel is ice‐bound for much of the year.

Over just a few days, vast flocks of snow geese descend on the tundra of this remote UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Arctic foxes catch any weak or sick birds, but what they feast on are the goose eggs, laid in early June in open nests on the tundra. Though the pairs of snow geese actively defend their nests, a fox may still manage to steal up to 40 eggs a day. Most eggs are then buried in shallow holes in the tundra, where the soil stays as cold as a refrigerator. These eggs will remain edible long after the brief Arctic summer is over and the geese have migrated south again. And when the new generation of young foxes begins to explore, they too will benefit from the hidden treasures.

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Photo: Sergey Gorshkov/ Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The wildlife photography contest winners will be announced on Oct 17, 2017. The exhibition at the Natural History Museum opens on October 20, 2o17.  

Source: National History Museum