“Tour boats had been watching the young whale for days as it moved slowly through the bay, looking sicker and slower by the day, with more shark bites all over its body.”
The scene was visceral. On its annual migration along Ningaloo Reef off Australia’s northwest coast, the adult humpback whale, maimed and sickly, was nearing the natural end of its life’s journey.
Ashlee Jansen, a budding marine photographer from Western Australia, was there. On this day in July 2021, she captured a profound visual allegory of life and death – one that would become famous.
“Friends had discovered an oil slick on the surface caused by the fallen whale,” Jansen said in a press release. “As they got closer, the distinct smell hit them and they knew they had found the position of the carcass resting on the seabed.
“Excited to share their find, I rushed to their location and jumped in the water to find the juvenile humpback whale skeleton [lying] still on the seabed. Surrounding the bare bones were several different species of well-fed sharks.”
She added: “We spent a couple of hours hovering over the whale carcass and watching the sharks come ever closer, unperturbed by our presence as they scanned the area for any remaining food.”
Her palpably compelling photo, a faithful testament to the cycle of life, earned Jansen the 2022 Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year award.
Still new to the art of underwater photography after chasing in 2017, Jansen shared how proud she was to have been crowned with the grand prize.
“This competition is such a prestigious award and being crowned the overall winner was something I would never have considered, especially so early in my photography career,” she said.
“I have always held this competition and this award in such high esteem, so to be selected as a winner from among so many talented photographers who I have looked up to and inspired me throughout my career is absolutely incredible.”
The jurors agreed to select Jansen’s picture from the 2,443 entries submitted – the most that the competition has ever received.
The considerable aesthetic appeal in Jansen’s captivating portrait stems from its “ornate circular composition,” according to the jury. The curvature of the whale’s skeletal ribs mirrors the patterns of the sand and waves, keeping the viewer’s eyes within the frame that oscillates between the living and the dead.
In addition to the title, Jansen received a cash award of $10,000 and a voyage award from Coral Expeditions. The competition was a joint venture between Australian Geographic and the South Australian Museum of Adelaide.
“This year’s winning image by Ashlee Jansen is a powerful statement about the cycle of life and the interdependence of species,” said Chrissie Goldrick, Editor-in-Chief of Australian Geographic.
Not to be too brightly outshone, a host of other stunning nature photographs encompassed the remaining multi-category winners of the competition. These categories included animals in nature, urban animals, botanical landscapes, the newly created astrophotography category, and others.
Featuring a dramatically lit seahorse in the depths of the field, as well as the gaping jaws of a great white man confronting the camera lens, an acrobatic cave-dwelling bat eating fireflies in flight, aerial views of lush jungle with fog, and whitewater taking your breath away rob and much more.
“Each year I am amazed at the quality of the entries we receive for this competition, with participants capturing incredible moments that inspire us to deepen our relationship with nature while challenging us to reflect on our impact,” said Brian Oldman, Director of the South Australian Museum.
Our winner added: “This unforgettable experience is a reminder of how harsh nature and the food chain can be, yet such an important part of the natural ecosystem. The sacrifice of one animal can provide so many other wildlife species with so many nutrients for years to come.”
This top selection will be on display at the South Australian Museum in Sydney until Sunday 30 October and at the Australian Museum in Sydney until Sunday 11 December 2022.
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