American Renee Capozzola became the first woman ever to win the title of Underwater Photographer of the Year award earlier this month for her image of reef sharks swimming while sea birds soar overhead in a tranquil corner of the Pacific Ocean off the island of Moorea.
"French Polynesia strongly protects its sharks, it is my favorite place to photograph them," Capozzola said in a statement. "I dedicated several evenings to photographing in the shallows at sunset, and I was finally rewarded with this scene: glass-calm water, a rich sunset, sharks and even birds."
Alexander Mustard, chair of the contest judges for the London-based award, praised her work.
"This is a photograph of hope, a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance, thriving with spectacular life both below and above the surface," he said. "The photographer not only persevered until this serendipitous scene unfolded, but more importantly Renee had the talent to capture this precise moment. The gorgeous lighting is sympathetic, but the picture is made by the elegance of the composition as sharks, sunset and seabirds fleetingly converge."
The contest is especially valuable this year, he said, considering the pressures and grief of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Judging this year's competition was a pleasure, a much-needed escape into the underwater world," Mustard said. "I hope everyone enjoys immersing themselves in these fabulous images."
The competition added a new category, My Backyard, "introduced to show that underwater photography can still thrive when many photographers are forced to stay close to home."
Other winning images show sea creatures and shipwrecks from all over the world. A wide-angle photo taken in Palau shows a lake filled with millions of jellyfish. In another image, a male crab protects his mate inside a shipwreck off the coast of England. And a photograph of one lone small fish tangled inside a discarded yellow plastic net reminds viewers of the importance of caring for the oceans. Flip through 28 top images from the contest in our gallery.