Cape Town - Selected from thousands of entries, an underwater photo of sardine predation off the Wild Coast of South Africa was selected as the winning image for the 2016 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year contest.
The photo, titled "Sardine Run" was captured by Greg Lecoeur of Nice, France. Lecoeur took the photo in June 2015 after waiting two weeks to witness the natural predation on sardines captured in the photo.
“During the sardine migration along the Wild Coast of South Africa, millions of sardines are preyed upon by marine predators such as dolphins, marine birds, sharks, whales, penguins, sailfishes and sea lions. The hunt begins with common dolphins that have developed special hunting techniques to create and drive bait balls to the surface,” Lecouer told NatGeo.
“In recent years, probably due to overfishing and climate change, the annual sardine run has become more and more unpredictable.”
This is his incredible photo:
Lecoeur’s photo won the Action category.
Varun Aditya, of Tamil Nadu, India, placed first in the Animal Portraits category for a photo of a snake, while Vadim Balakin, of Sverdlovsk, Russia, placed first in the Environmental Issues category for a photo of polar bear remains in Norway.
Jacob Kapetein of Gerland, Netherlands, placed first in the Landscape category for a photo of a small beech tree in a river.
Check out the winning images here:
Contestants submitted photographs in four categories — Action, Landscape, Animal Portraits and Environmental Issues — through National Geographic’s photography community, Your Shot.
You can see all the winners of the four categories here: SA Sardine Run claim 2016 NatGeo Nature Photographer of the Year grand prize
For winning the grand prize, Lecoeur receives a 10-day trip for two to the Galápagos with National Geographic Expeditions, as well as endless exposure.
3 Questions for the winning photographer, Greg Lecoeur
Q1: Please describe the story of how you captured the image chosen as our Grand Prize photo
I took this image during the winter months in South Africa, a natural and spectacular phenomenon known as the Sardine Run. Millions of sardines move up from their natural habitat in Cape Agulhas to the southern part of KwaZulu Natal, along the Wild Coast of the country. The mass formed by the migration of millions of sardines can stretch over several kilometers and be observed from space. It is an event that draws many predators.
In June 2015, I went for the first time two weeks to Port Saint Johns with a diver and skipper, from off-shore South Africa. Every day, we sailed the African water looking for any sign of the migration. One day, the ocean was full of energy. We were escorted by hundreds of dolphins and from a point on the horizon, frantic sounds of gannet birds became louder and their dives from the air seemed to accelerate as they shot straight down, piercing the surface of the sea. Our dive boat headed towards the vortex of sea birds in the air, the adrenaline rush grabbing all of us aboard the Zodiac.
The hunt was on! Before jumping into the water, I could not imagine the incredible spectacle that would be found under the surface. All the region’s predators seemed to have gotten the same invitation. Whether friends or enemies, all predators here combine to form a single army, together hunting the small sardines, leading to the greatest “show” on earth. The hunt begins with common dolphins that have developed special hunting techniques using their sonar skills and bubble streams to locate and isolate a ball of sardines in the outgoing tide.
The ball of sardines, called “bait ball,” are preyed upon by seabirds like albatrosses, sterns, cormorants, but the Cape gannet is the king of group. With remarkable eyesight, the gannets follow the dolphins before diving in a free-fall from 30 to 40 meters high, piercing the surface of the water head first at a speed of 80km/h, immersing themselves as deep as 15 meters to get their fill of sardines before reaching the surface.
Other opportunistic predators attracted by the agitation can appear, including hundreds of sharks, tunas, sailfishes, sea lions and sometimes Bryde’s whales, all are drawn to the feast. Orcas can also show up in an attempt to snatch a dolphin.
My scuba gear on, I jumped in the water and swam to the bait ball. Underwater it was the chaos! Sardine’s scale, bubble and song of dolphins were the first things I observed, followed by several explosions announcing the impacts of the birds perforating the surface. The dolphins launched their assault, and rushed into the sardines right before my eyes. Like lightening, crazy gannet birds pierced the surface, ending up about ten meters deep, and then began a disorderly swim to catch several fishes in the same dive. The action was very fast, but the setting of my camera ready. My eye in the viewfinder, I captured the instant. During the two weeks, every day on the water, we spotted another bait ball, but the visibility was too poor to jump in the water.
Each year, Sardine Run is more and more unpredictable, possibly due to overfishing or warming waters. In my view, as a passionate marine biology photographer, this underwater predation is the most exciting and powerful behavior to witness from nature.
Q2: How long have you been a photographer?
Six years ago, I was pushed by my strong passion for the marine world to change my life. I decided to use a camera to share with people my passion on the sea and started to learn photography as an autodidact next to Nice (French Riviera in France) in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. I decided to leave everything in France to live my childhood dream: diving and photographing the world. I left my life's comfort, sold my company and finally went to discover the oceans around the world.
I explore the world with my backpack and my housing camera during one year round. I spent a lot of time in the water of Galapagos, Honduras, Mexico, Florida, Bahamas, Republic Dominica, California, Hawaii, Baja California, Hawaii, British Colombia and more. It was an extraordinary experience to understand the marine ecosystems and develop my photography skills and style. Since this time, I travel for underwater photography, and it has become a lifestyle.
Q3: Is there something you hope your overall body of work will convey to viewers?
Through my lens, I try to capture the emotion of the moment to reveal beauty and fragility of the marine environment with its inhabitants. By sharing my passion, I hope the public will become personally involved in the preservation of our oceans. By inviting them into the underwater environment, I hope to offer people through my photography a discovery of this incredible world that is difficult to access.