An incredible image showing a photographer’s perspective while surrounded by poisonous sea snakes is among the images chosen for the 58th Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit.
The exhibit, which opened at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM) on Friday, will tour across the UK before traveling to venues around the world including Texas Tech University and Detroit Zoological Society in the United States.
The exhibition includes 100 photographs selected from more than 38,000 entries in 93 countries. It includes the winning images and additional photographs that were “highly recommended” by the judges. Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the NHM.
Among the “highly recommended” images in the “Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles” category is a photograph called “The Snake Tree” which was taken by German photographer Juergen Freund in Vaturova, Vanua Levu, Fiji, a South Pacific island nation.
Freund took the photo while on a WWF (World Wildlife Fund) South Pacific assignment to document Fiji’s Great Reef, the third largest barrier reef in the world.
The image shows dozens of banded sea kraits – a type of poisonous snake – hanging out near a lone mangrove tree in the sea.
“I’ve been working with sea kraits and sea snakes for many years and I especially like the banded sea kraits,” Freund said. Newsweek.
On the day the photographer took the photo, he was on a boat going island-hopping photographing traditional Fijian life, culture, wildlife and fishing.
After a whole morning of diving in a marine protected area in the Great Coral Sea, Freund was on his way back to shore when his local dive guide passed him by, “Oh, there’s a single mangrove tree in the middle from the sea not far from the island which, at low tide, has sea kraits resting on the roots of the mangrove trees.”
Intrigued, Freund asked if they could walk towards the tree, since at that time it was low tide.
“Our boat driver had a chat first because they were hungry and never like to go near snakes,” he said. “But we could see this amazing congregation of sea serpents swimming around in the lonely mangrove, crawling up the tree for a kind of nap as the tide was out.”
Freund said in a statement to the NHM that the snakes were “swimming over him” to get to their favorite meeting place.
The photographer captured the image using a Nikon D800e camera fitted with a 16mm fish-eye lens inside a Seacam housing for underwater protection.
“The conditions were perfect as I could stand on the sandy bottom with chest deep water and I could take my images from two levels without too much difficulty as the water was calm and my subjects were all around me,” he said.
Natalie Cooper, senior researcher at NHM and judge of the photography competition, said Newsweek images like this that are split between water and air are hard to get right.
“But this image beautifully captures the sea krait underwater and the congregation of snakes above the water in the tree,” Cooper said. “Such a magnificent animal and fascinating behavior combined in one shot makes for picture perfect.”
Sea kraits are among the most venomous animals in the tropical Indo-Pacific, but they are not aggressive and bites on humans are very rare.
“I’ve worked on stories of sea kraits for many years as a photojournalist and I’m quite aware of their behavior,” Freund said. “They have short teeth and are rather lazy to bite if not threatened under normal circumstances. But there is definitely always a risk of accidental biting.”
“I was wearing a neoprene wetsuit which gave me some protection. But I wasn’t too worried about being in danger. Our Fijian friends, on the other hand, were a bit far off safely in their open boat, fearing that we are so close to snakes.”
Other “Highly Commended” images in the contest include “Sloth Dilemma” captured by American photographer Suzi Eszterhas in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica. The image captures a tense encounter between a brown-throated sloth and a large dog.
When Eszterhas took the picture, the sloth had just crossed the road. But to reach the next clump of trees, he had to return to the ground and crawl. At this point, he froze after spotting a large dog. It was a life-threatening situation for the sloth – dog attacks are the second leading cause of sloth deaths in Costa Rica.
One of the winning images in the contest, which came out on top in the ‘Photojournalism’ category, is ‘Ndakasi’s Passing’. This photo was taken by South African photographer Brent Stirton in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The image shows the final moments of an orphaned mountain gorilla called Ndakasi, who was rescued by Virunga park rangers aged just 2 months after his troop was massacred by a charcoal mafia , a criminal group involved in the illegal charcoal trade, in 2007. In the photo, the gorilla is dying in the arms of André Bauma, the ranger who cared for her for 13 years.