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The best wildlife photos of the year show a curious grizzly, dueling reindeer, and fish swimming through a cloud of sperm

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

The best wildlife photos of the year show a curious grizzly, dueling reindeer, and fish swimming through a cloud of sperm

The camouflage grouper is declining due to overfishing, but each July, beneath a full moon, the fish begin to multiply.

For five years, biologist Laurent Ballesta has returned to a lagoon in Fakarava, French Polynesia every July to photograph the groupers spawning. He and his team dove night and day to capture photos of the fish darting through clouds of eggs and sperm, which mix and fertilize in the warm tropical waters.

The above photo, which Ballesta calls "Creation," is the result of that effort, and it won the prestigious Grand Title award in the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest. The competition, developed and produced by the Natural History Museum in London, aims to showcase the diversity and fragility of the planet's wildlife. The museum announced its winners on Tuesday.

This year, the contest drew more entries than ever before - more than 50,000 photos from photographers in 95 countries. But "Creation" stood out.

"The image works on so many levels. It is surprising, energetic, and intriguing and has an otherworldly beauty," Roz Kidman Cox, who chaired the judges panel, said in a statement. "It also captures a 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."

Other winning photos across 19 categories reveal the devastation of climate change and environmental destruction. They show dead coral, melting sea ice, and dwindling animal populations. But many are also snapshots of persistence: creatures procreating, fighting for mates, and caring for their young.

A photo of an inconspicuous spider won the contest's Grand Title for youth photographers

Vidyun Hebbar, age 10, was exploring a theme park near his home in Bengaluru, India, when he spotted a tent spider in a gap in a wall. The tiny creature was perched upside down in a dome-shaped web it had woven across the wall.

He held up his camera and clicked as a tuk tuk passed by. The motorized rickshaw made a colorful background for the spider and its intricate silk web.

"The jury loved this photo from the beginning of the judging process. It is a great reminder to look more closely at the small animals we live with every day, and to take your camera with you everywhere," Dr. Natalie Cooper, a researcher at the Natural History Museum who sat on the judges panel, said in a statement.

A hungry grizzly bear made eye contact with the camera before trashing it

US photographer Zack Clothier thought these wild elk remains might attract a grizzly bear. So he set up his camera nearby and retreated. When he came back, he found his setup trashed.

This image, with the grizzly eyeballing the camera, was the last one snapped.

"Your eye goes to the rib cage, moves to the antlers and then gets a jolt from the great grizzly head looming into view," Cox said. "It is a story picture - the harsh winter environment, the bear emerging from its hibernation den to make use of what food it can find. But what gives it the edge is the bear's expression. You cannot help smiling."

An aerial image of seals giving birth on melting ice shows blood, new life, and impending doom

US photographer Jennifer Hayes spent hours on a helicopter searching for these harp seals' birthing grounds. As they came into view, her camera captured the scattered seals and the smears of blood their births had left on the ice.

"It was a pulse of life that took your breath away," Hayes said in a statement.

But the ice beneath the seals is fragmenting. As Arctic air and oceans get warmer, northern sea ice is becoming more scarce. That's likely to cause major disruptions and population crashes for animals that rely on the ice.

"What an impactful picture - a record of both birth and imminent disaster," Cox said. "Adult harp seals give scale to this frozen sea stained with the blood of new life that is cracking apart too early, indicating the likely carnage to come as the ice melts and the pups, in their fluffy white coats, drown - a drama representative of the climate emergency."

For those reasons, Hayes's photo won the contest's Oceans category.

A venomous spider guarded its brood beneath a photographer's bed

Gil Wizen noticed tiny spiders swarming in his bedroom one day. When the photographer peeked under his bed, he found the culprit: a Brazilian wandering spider the size of his hand. One of the world's most venomous spiders had laid and hatched its eggs right below his place of rest.

Wizen captured the scene before relocating the spider outside.

One photographer returned to an old subject, only to find it dead

David Doubilet has been taking his camera diving among corals for 30 years. In those decades, the reefs around him have changed. Many are dying as the oceans absorb the carbon dioxide humans are pumping into the atmosphere. That makes oceans more acidic, and the warming climate raises the water temperature at the same time.

The coral colonies in this photo didn't survive. When the tiny animals that make up the coral - called polyps - died, that left the coral bleached.

Doubilet returned to this coral skeleton with a photograph of its living form from nine years earlier.

A white-tailed kite tried to teach its offspring how to woo a mate

The younger California bird was trying to take a live mouse from the claws of its father while hovering in mid-air, according to photographer Jack Zhi. This is how the juvenile must eat until it can hunt for itself. The exchange is also practice for future courtship, when a male bird offers prey to a female.

This gold-speckled youngster had only been flying for two days. It clumsily tried to reach its claws up to take the mouse, but didn't quite get the prize. It learned quickly, though, and circled around to grab its prey from behind the older bird.

Other creatures were fighting for the right to woo

The colorful pair of male cichlid fish in this image are facing off, jaw to jaw, over a female hiding in a snail shell, ready to lay eggs. Photographer Angel Fitor spent three weeks diving to the bottom of Lake Tanganyika, an enormous freshwater lake at the center of Africa, looking for such cichlid fish fights. This one lasted just seconds.

Dueling reindeer also battled over females

During the rutting season in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, male reindeer clash antlers over harems of females. These two fought until the dominant male, on the left, chased his rival away.

Photographer Stefano Unterthiner said in a statement that he felt immersed in "the smell, the noise, the fatigue, and the pain."

The Svalbard subspecies of reindeer is unique to that area. But on the island, climate change has led to increased rainfall, which can freeze on the ground and block reindeer from eating the plants that are usually accessible through soft snow.

On an island within an island, a red fox scavenged for dead salmon

This animal is one of two foxes living on a small island in Karluk Lake, which is nested in Alaska's Kodiak Island. Photographer Jonny Armstrong followed the fox for several days as she pounced at birds, ate berries, and even nipped at the heels of a young brown bear.

Then a storm began to roll in, bringing a somber backdrop. As the vixen scanned the shallows for sockeye salmon that had died after spawning, Armstrong laid on his stomach at the water's edge to capture her focused gaze.

The winner in the portraits category shows a mountain gorilla at peace in the rain

The gorilla, named Kibande, is almost 40 years old. He's a member of a dwindling subspecies of eastern gorilla. Just two populations of these mountain gorillas remain in the wild - one in the Virunga volcanoes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and one in Uganda's Bwindi forest. They're threatened by poaching, habitat destruction, and disease.

Photographer Majed Ali trekked four hours uphill in his attempt to photograph Kibande.

"The more we climbed, the hotter and more humid it got," Majed said in a statement.

As rain began to fall and cool the air, Kibande closed his eyes and let the droplets fall over his face.