The image, which also took first in the Action category, depicts two predatory birds diving under the surface and splitting the school as two dolphins chase the small fish towards the surface. Lecoeur waited for two weeks to capture the shot, working to time the dive with the fish migration.
“During the sardine migration along the Wild Coast of South Africa, millions of sardines are preyed upon by marine predators such as dolphins, marine birds, sharks, whales, penguins, sailfishes and sea lions,” Lecoeur said. “The hunt begins with common dolphins that have developed special hunting techniques to create and drive bait balls to the surface. In recent years, probably due to overfishing and climate change, the annual sardine run has become more and more unpredictable.”
The Nice, France, native took the shot in June of 2015.
Along with the grand prize, National Geographic judges Kathy Moran, senior photo editor of natural history, and Joe Riis and Jim Bradenburg, both photographers for the publication, awarded first place prizes in three additional subcategories.
A shot of a snake wrapping itself around a branch and looking into the camera took first for the Animal Portraits category, captured by Varun Aditya, of Tamil Nadu, India.
Global warming took the spotlight in the Environmental Issues category with Vadim Balakin, of Sverdlovsk, Russia, taking the title for his shot of a dead polar bear in a pile of fur resembling melting snow. The cause of the bear’s death is unknown, but the photographer said melting ice is creating a rise in the number of polar bears that die from starvation.
The landscape prize went to a young photographer, Jacob Kapetein of Gerland, Netherlands, for a shot of a small beech tree in a river, with the blue water reflecting much larger, towering trees.