“Best of Show” and Animal Behavior (Gold) – Yung-Sen Wu
DPG and Wetpixel recently announced the results of the Underwater Competition Series, one of the world’s largest and most-prestigious underwater imaging contests. As always, we were blown away by the winning images and thrilled to give back to the environment by donating 15% of the profits to marine conservation organizations.
However, there has been some concern that two images in particular involved the use of physical manipulation of the subject. The rules of the competition explicitly forbid such behavior: “Images in which the subject has been moved into a position or environment in which they are not normally found” are not allowed.
Blue-Ring Octopus with Eggs, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia
The first image in question is Yung-Sen Wu’s “Best of Show” winner from the DEEP Indonesia competition, which captured a blue-ring octopus apparently brooding its eggs inside of an empty shell. To be sure, such a sight would be a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Some concerned divers believe the photographer set up the scene by coercing the octopus into the shell.
To reach a conclusion, we contacted the photographer to request his RAW files and a sequence of shots leading up to the final image, and to tell the story behind the shot. The image sequence seems to depict the octopus clutching the eggs in the shell without any evidence of physical manipulation. Our analysis of the RAW files revealed allowed minor post-processing of the final image, including spot removal and contrast, color, and sharpness adjustments.
A sequence of images captured during the shoot (courtesy of Yung-Sen Wu)
The photographer, Yung-Sen Wu, explained to us that he found the blue-ring octopus at a depth of almost 90 feet in a huge crack between some rocks at the bottom of the Lembeh Strait. “It kept on spitting something out of its mouth and sucking them back in. I then took a closer look at it and realized they were actually its eggs! I did not want to scare the blue-ring octopus away, therefore I immediately exited the crack slowly, adjusted the settings on my camera, and then I entered back into the crack slowly to take the photos. I managed to capture around 20 photos of the behavior in sequence.” Wu used a Retra Light Shaping Device to make the composition cleaner by removing the distracting background.
On The Cephalopod Page, Dr. Roy Caldwell of the University of California at Berkeley writes: “When ready to lay their eggs, females of all three species select a suitable shelter such as a mollusk shell or rock cavity—bottles and cans now serve quite well for this purpose. After all the eggs are laid, which can take several days, the female remains with them for several weeks until they hatch.”
Discussing the behavior with some of the world’s leading blue-ring octopus researchers and other industry experts, we heard a range of nuanced opinions. It was suggested, for example, that the eggs are too spherical to belong to a blue-ring octopus, whose eggs are oval in shape. One possibility is that this blue-ring happened upon some fish eggs, which either elicited brooding behavior or enticed her to feed. Another possibility is that the blue-ring attacked a crustacean and carried its eggs away. In any event, the general consensus remained that it was not possible to say that any physical manipulation was involved in obtaining the image. Given the photographer’s story, the sequence of shots, and our discussions with experts, we tend to share this opinion.
In this image of a female with eggs, photographed by eminent marine scientist Dr. Roy Caldwell, the eggs are clearly oval in shape (courtesy of Roy L. Caldwell)
Seahorse with Nudibranch, Mar Piccolo, Italy
Similar concerns have also been raised about Francesco Pacienza’s Gold-winning image in the Compact Cameras category. Once again, although this behavior might be considered highly unusual as most divers haven’t observed it, concluding that manipulation had to have been used is a hasty assumption.
Gold – Compact Cameras by Francesco Pacienza
A sequence of images captured during the shoot (courtesy of Francesco Pacienza)
In this case, the location where this image was captured—in Mar Piccolo, off Taranto, in southern Italy—is a site with high biodiversity where surprising encounters such as this aren’t nearly as uncommon as one might think. The photographer, who dives here several times a week, has also documented nudibranch eggs attached to the body of a seahorse, for example. Addressing the question of manipulation, the photographer pointed out, “Both subjects do not have evident signs of stress: The nudibranch has an open branchial tuft and extensive rhinophores; the seahorse, a female specimen during the mating period, is in its typical position.”
Some the world’s most knowledgeable seahorse researchers confirmed that the behavior, while unusual, is something that has indeed been observed. As seahorses are very sedentary, there’s every possibility that a nudibranch could crawl over one, and the behavior isn’t confined to certain species either. Nudibranch eggs have also been recorded covering various body parts of seahorses.
Nudibranchs hitching rides on seahorses is a phenomenon known to science (courtesy of David Harasti)
There is the argument that if an image is so unusual as to appear manipulated, even if it isn’t, then it shouldn’t be considered a contender in competitions—much less given recognition—as it could potentially encourage manipulation. However, not only does this mean that rare and perhaps biologically valuable behavior shots are unfairly censored, but also that this stifles creativity as well as the effort to justly reward photographic excellence through fair competition.
Ultimately, our decisions regarding competition entries are not lightly reached, but without doubt those of contrasting opinions will maintain that such images are not possible without physical manipulation. Our judges do their best to identify clear cases of manipulation, but at the end of the day, the responsibility of ethical behavior rests on the shoulders of underwater photographers. With that in mind, the Underwater Competition Series will remain vigilant not to reward images that overtly involve manipulation in an attempt to deter such behavior. We encourage all underwater shooters to treat their subjects with respect, and consider the myriad ways in which manipulation can be avoided by using technique and creativity.
Congratulations again to all of the winners, and we look forward to celebrating the beauty—and mystery—of our oceans with future competitions.
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