Groupers Getting it On Win Wildlife Photo of the Year

by Jon D. B.

Sometimes, science is just sex. And sometimes, a photo of sex wins the world’s most prestigious wildlife photography award.

It’s like an explosion underwater. Several camouflage groupers rush to release their sperm as a female fish drops a burst of eggs.

This artful turn-of-phrase is how BBC Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos describes the photograph that would bag Laurent Ballesta the prestige of Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) 2021. It’s an apt description, but one that skirts around the happening at hand: Grouper sex.

“I’m attached to this picture because of the shape of the cloud of eggs: it looks like an upside-down question mark,” Ballesta says of his winning photograph. “It’s a question of the future of these eggs because only one in one million will (survive to) become an adult,” he adds. “But it’s maybe more symbolic of the future of nature. It’s a very important question about the future of nature.”

When you boil it down, nature becomes survival and sex at it’s most basic. Which makes Ballesta’s stunning photograph all the more pertinent. The wildlife photographer would capture his snapshot of groupers mating in the Pacific’s Fakarava Atoll. And according to WPY jury chair Roz Kidman Cox, it’s a “technical tour de force.”

“It’s partly the setting, taken during a full Moon, but also the timing of it, knowing when to take the picture,” Cox lauds of the striking image.

To capture the shot, Laurent Ballesta says his team spent five years in this place, 3,000 hours of diving, to get this particular moment.

A native of France, Ballesta’s own fascination with the annual spawning rituals of camouflage groupers has now earned him worldwide recognition.

The species mates during a small window of July. The gatherings of groupers, however, is not small. Some 20,000 fish come together to spawn the next generation. And everything from reef sharks to every bigger fish in the ocean come looking for an easy meal during mating season.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competitions Brings out the Best in Conservation

The photograph is also important to science and not just photography. As the BBC cites, overfishing greatly threatens these groupers. Ballesta, however, was able to capture his winning shot in a reserve that offers the species protection. His incredible image now offers marine biologists are rare glimpse at a remarkable mating event that’s becoming rarer by the year.

As a result, he’s taking home WPY’s Grand Prize, alongside the competition’s Underwater category win. Joining Ballesta is 10-year-old Vidyun R. Hebbar of India as the Junior Wildlife Photographer of the Year. His photo of a tent spider in its web. Hebbar calls it Dome Home.

“Its focusing is pin sharp,” Jury chair Cox tells BBC News. “You can actually see the little fangs if you blow up the picture. I love the way it’s been framed and the way you can see all the texture of the web, its lattice structure.”

Vidyun says that the photo was “challenging to focus” because the tent spider’s “web shook every time a vehicle passed by.”

London’s Natural History Museum has carried out the WPY each year since its inaugural 1964 competition. Tens of thousands compete annually for the top prize. But none have ever captured sex quite like 2021’s winner, Laurent Ballesta.