My involvement with the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition goes back to 1998. I was commissioned to make trophies for two of the category winners. Imagine my delight when they were presented by Sir David Attenborough no less. Since then I have gone on to make trophies for the overall winner and Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, sculpting the animals in the winning photos.
Of course, this isn’t without its challenges. The winning photos could depict almost anything. Every year is a surprise and, as you would expect, some are more difficult than others. This year was challenging: how to capture a cluster of tiny bees and a pod of feeding whales. Not exactly my typical subject matter.
When the time came to sculpt the bees, it was the number and unusual behaviour that was captured in the winning image. To convey this narrative in the trophy, I sculpted numerous bees in ceramic and worked with the talented jeweller, Daniel Wilds, who fashioned pairs of silver bee wings. The wings would catch the light and reflect on the polished granite plinth, creating a bejewelled presence.
The Bryde’s whales trophy took some work too. Just as with the bees, I had to learn a new animal anatomy and behaviour. Bryde’s have a unique set of three prominent ridges in front of their blowhole. And there were other details, such as the baleen plates and tongue placement, that distinguish them from other whales. Bryde’s whales feed collectively, so I sculpted three to be placed on a shiny water-like black granite plinth.
This year, after several years online through the pandemic, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards ceremony is back where it belongs, in London’s Natural History Museum. The ceremony, set in the entrance hall of the museum, feels like the Oscars for Wildlife Photography. All the category winners are flown in from all over the world to attend, and all the big names in wildlife are there. Chris Packham hosts the event with his wonderful charisma, knowledge and humour. To be awarded Wildlife Photographer of the Year, selected from nearly 40,000 entrants is an achievement of a lifetime. I feel very honoured and privileged to be a small part of this prestigious celebration of wildlife photography.
Winner Karine Eigner
A buzzing ball of cactus bees spins over the sand on a Texas ranch. All except one are males, and they are frantic to mate with the single female at its core. Hundreds of small, volcano-like turrets led Karine to discover the presence of the birth burrows of these ground-nesting bees. In spring, the males usually emerge first from their burrows and start to patrol to locate the burrows holding female cells. The moment a female emerges from one, they pile in. Once mated, a female excavates a new vertical burrow with a series of rounded cells leading off it. She lays a single egg in each cell and provisions it with nectar and pollen to sustain the developing larva. She then seals the burrow entrance and leaves, dying shortly afterwards. Though cactus bees are solitary, they often nest in aggregations that may number hundreds or thousands, extending over areas the size of several tennis courts. They are known to feed not only on cacti – their emergence timed to coincide with cactus flowering – but also on poppies, mallows and legumes, playing a vital role in the pollination of many wild plants and crops, including cacti grown for food, livestock feed, medicines and cosmetics. Like many bees, cactus bees are under threat from habitat loss, pesticides and climate change, as well as farming practices that disrupt their nesting grounds. Karine’s bee-level shot captures the detail of their golden‑banded bodies and remarkable eyes. Alongside these are the whirring wings of incoming males, isolated against a cloudy sky that hints at possible rain and spring blooming.
Young Winner: Katanyou Wuttichaitanakorn
When a Bryde’s whale surfaced close to the boat, mouth agape, Katanyou was intrigued by the contrasting colours and textures of its dark skin, smooth pink gum and the brush-like mass of baleen hanging down from its top jaw. Steadying his hands as the boat rocked in the swell, he zoomed in to capture a close-up composition of the spectacle, complete with fleeing anchovies and the twist of a fish shadow on the whale’s gum. Whale-watching has become a popular activity in the Gulf of Thailand, focussed on a population of Bryde’s whales that are present year-round in the South China Sea. They congregate during the rainy season in pursuit of abundant anchovies. The trip was run by an accredited tour operator and was following government guidelines to keep a distance from the whales. So when this whale appeared close-by they turned off the engine. Like other baleen whales, including blue, fin and humpback, Bryde’s use a technique known as lunge-feeding to capture large amounts of small schooling fish. The pleated grooves in their throats expand to create a vast container as they surge upwards, capturing a giant mouthful of food. The water is then pushed out through the sieve of fibrous baleen plates. Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Thailand have developed a special energy-saving adaptation of this technique: by first lifting their heads above water then opening their mouths at the surface, they create a current so that water and fish flow in.