For five years, French biologist and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta and his team visited and revisited the dark, quiet lagoon of Fakarava in French Polynesia, South Pacific Ocean.
They spent roughly 3,000 hours diving just to watch a group of fish have sex. The otherwise ordinary-looking species of fish called the “camouflage grouper” has a unique mating ritual. Under the light of the full moon each July, they mate in groups, and the male and female fish each release a cloud of sperm or eggs.
“This event only happens once a year, and lasts less than half an hour,” Ballesta told VICE.
In one such trip, the groupers converged, and a dramatic cloud of eggs exploded from the mating. “I have photographed them for five years in a row but never like this one,” he added. On his Instagram, he observed: “The dark waters of the night soon [became] milky white.” He went on to aptly title the photograph: “Creation.”
This stunning image just won the Grand Prize in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, organised by London’s Natural History Museum. The competition is considered one of the world’s largest and most prestigious spaces for wildlife photography, and has been running for 57 years. Every year, it rewards photographers in 19 categories, such as animal behaviour, plants, and animal portraits, followed by a touring exhibition across the world.
Ballesta said that the moment in which he captured the stunning image came and went in a split second. “It happens so fast that you can’t see it with the naked eye,” he said. “During these dives at night, everything is dark, 700 sharks are hunting at the same time, and the groupers are mating in a fraction of a second. The only thing I could think about was to trigger my camera and hope for the best.”
Rosamund Kidman Cox, the chair of the judging panel, described the image as “surprising, energetic, intriguing and [with] an otherworldly beauty.” In a statement provided to VICE, she said, “It also captures the magical moment – a truly explosive creation of life – leaving the tail-end of the exodus of eggs hanging for a moment like a symbolic question mark.”
Ballesta said that the “question mark shape” of the cloud of eggs is unique, even symbolic.
“I see it as a symbol: that of the uncertainties hanging over the future of global biodiversity, even in places as unspoiled as the Fakarava Reserve,” he said.
Ballesta’s photo of the mating groupers is one of 50,000 entries from 95 countries, and among 19 category winners this year.
Dr Doug Gurr, the director of the Natural History Museum, said that these visuals are significant in a year that is pivotal for the planet as countries across the world pledge to protect biodiversity. He added that the capture of the near-threatened fish species by Ballesta is a “compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not address humanity’s impact on our planet.”
Here are some other photos from the awards.
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