This year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards (BWPA) overall winner, and winner of the WWF sponsored Coast and Marine category, is George Stoyle with his striking image ‘Hitchhikers’ of a lion’s mane jellyfish.
The image, which was chosen from thousands of entries, was captured while George was working on a project to assess the current biological status of life found in major sea caves around some of the UK’s most remote islands. He took the winning shot at St Kilda, Scotland.
The BWPA celebrate both the work of amateur and professional photographers and the beauty and diversity of British wildlife. WWF has sponsored the Coast and Marine category since the competition was launched. For us, it’s a great way of demonstrating how crucial it is to conserve our seas and coastline and the species they support.
In this blog, George Stoyle tells us what it was like to win this coveted award and answers our burning questions.
WWF: Congratulations on winning this year’s BWPA. Can you share your experience of capturing this shot?
GS: I was diving in Village Bay just off the island of Hirta, the main island in the St. Kilda archipelago about 100 miles west of the Scottish mainland. I was working with Heriot Watt University Scientific Dive Team surveying sea caves and rocky reefs as part of a Scottish Natural Heritage project, and I had just come to the end of a dive. I was swimming slowly back to the boat, away from the island and came face to face with the largest lion’s mane jellyfish I had ever seen. I was using a fisheye lens so had to get quite close in order to get the shot, aware of its incredibly long, stinging tentacles. As I got closer I saw all the juvenile fish which had taken refuge in the jellyfish’s tentacles, something I had never seen before. I’ve seen many lion’s mane jellyfish whilst diving, but due to the size of this one and the fact it was in relatively clear water, I realised it would be a pretty good shot if I got the lighting right.
WWF: How did you first become interested in underwater photography?
GS: I first became interested in general photography in the mid-90s when, armed with a cheap compact film camera, I spent a year or so travelling around New Zealand. This trip really inspired my love of the ocean and I learnt to dive in 1996, but underwater photography wasn’t something I really thought about until a few years later.
A friend of mine bought me a book by David Doubilet (Water Light Time) and this really opened my eyes to some world-class underwater photography. In the early 2000s I moved to North Wales and started working in marine ecology/conservation. I lived there for five years and dived fairly extensively around the coast. It was the people I met during this time that really inspired me to give underwater photography a go and so, as soon as I could afford it, I bought my first camera housing.
The next few years were spent working travelling, diving and photographing, initially going back to the southern hemisphere and then working for some time in various parts of the Caribbean, where I started to become aware of the value of conservation photography.
WWF: Do you have any tips for budding underwater photographers?
GS: It’s important to be a well-practised diver before you attempt any serious underwater photography, particularly with some of the larger DSLR set ups. It helps to be able to essentially forget about diving and concentrate on photography. Buoyancy control and breathing technique need to be second nature. It’s also important to have a relatively good understanding of your camera and a good grasp of aspects such as aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
Unlike land-based photography, where you can often get away with leaving the camera in auto, you generally can’t be so lucky underwater. Most underwater photographers will shoot fully manual to maintain full control. Don’t get too bogged down with things like megapixels and thinking that buying the latest expensive kit means you will get the best shots.
Although having the right equipment is an important factor, technology is so good these days that even entry-level cameras are perfectly decent for most types of underwater photography. A DSLR will certainly open up a few more options, but there’s nothing to say that a cheap compact setup can’t achieve superb results. You can build up your equipment and experience over time and you will inevitably learn as you go – just take your time, have patience and create your own luck.
WWF: You’re a marine ecologist – what issues concern you most regarding our marine environment?
GS: This is a tough one to answer in one paragraph as there are so many issues affecting the marine environment today. This year has just seen the most extensive coral bleaching in history, oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, fisheries are collapsing, species are going extinct. We continue to exploit resources at an unsustainable rate and the cracks are beginning to appear.
The world is changing as a direct result of our actions and as the problems continue to build, as human population continues to increase and as resources continue to dwindle I do genuinely worry about my daughter’s future and also our future as a species. That may sound a bit melodramatic, but the way we interact with this planet, on the whole, is clearly not working out too well. That said, there is a lot of good work going on in the world despite the constant negativity we are fed via the mass media and this gives me some encouragement.
WWF: What, or who, inspires you to keep taking photographs?
GS: It was through my research on coral reefs that I became inspired to start using photography to tell conservation-related stories, with the aim of raising awareness of issues facing the marine environment. Much of the photographic work I do now is about promoting the work of conservation organisations and research institutions, using photography and videography to document projects which work towards better protection of marine species, as well as contributing to the public’s greater awareness of marine conservation issues.
Photography has played an important role in conservation for decades and plays an increasingly crucial role in making people aware of the threats faced by the natural world. An image can be engaging, emotive and compelling, capable of telling a thousand words and more. Ultimately photography can and does have a positive contribution in affecting global change and this is what inspires me to carry on. I also still like to get out and take photos for no particular reason – watching the sun rise over the North Sea just down the road from where I live is also inspiring.
Check out more of George’s work on georgestoyle.com