Thousands of Munk's devil rays crowd the Sea of Cortez off Mexico's Baja California Sur state (map) in 2009. The aerial image won top honors and the "Underwater World" category in the 2010 Environmental Photographer of the Year awards.
German photographer Florian Schulz said the scope of the ray congregations was unknown until he and a pilot happened upon the gathering while searching for migrating whales.
Perhaps just as rare is the composition Schulz captured. "I was able to show how these rays are jumping out of the water," he said, "and at the same time I'm able to show—almost like an underwater photograph—how there're layers and layers and layers of rays."
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists Munk's devil rays as near threatened, due in part to their vulnerability to gill nets—hard-to-see "curtains" of netting.
Given ray gatherings like the one pictured, Schulz said, "you could imagine a single net could take thousands and thousands."
This helps explain why, upon seeing the winning photo, marine ecologist Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara emailed Schulz to express his delight at seeing so many Munk's devil rays thriving in a single frame. Di Sciara helped identify the species in 1987.
Organized by the London-based Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, the Environmental Photographer of the Year contest honors amateur and professional photographers who "raise awareness of environmental and social issues." This year's edition drew more than 4,500 entries from photographers in 97 countries.
Photograph by Florian Schulz, EPOTY.org/Barcroft/Fame Pictures
Underwater-World Finalist: "Hide and Seek"
A gray seal pokes its head through "clouds" of plant life in a winning picture by Estonian photographer Kaido Haagen.
Based in the capital city, Tallinn (map), Haagen didn't have to travel too far for the otherworldly image, which was captured about six feet (two meters) under the Baltic Sea near the Estonian island of Vilsandi (map).
Photograph by Bela Nasfay, EPOTY.org/Barcroft/Fame Pictures
Under-21 Winner: "The Fortune Teller"
Like a soothsayer with a crystal ball, a fly rubs a bead of water in the backyard of Bulgarian photographer Radoslav Radoslavov Valkov, winner of the "Under 21" category of the 2010 Young Environmental Photographer of the Year award.
"At first I was astonished to know that I was even shortlisted, and later absolutely delighted to realize that I have received my first serious international artistic recognition," Valkov said in a press statement.
No, it's not another subdivision-gone-bust outside Las Vegas. This winning picture by Rowan E. Bestmann captures channels and causeways in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, constructed to purify local gray water—wastewater from household activities such as bathing and laundering—for reuse.
Photograph by Bence Mate, EPOTY.org/Barcroft/Fame Pictures
View-of-the-Western-World Winner: "Waste Not Want Not"
Supermarket workers purge thawed food from powerless freezers in the wake of the biggest floods in decades to wash through the rural town of Charleville, Australia—as captured by Rowan E. Bestmann, who also won the "Innovation in the Environment" category.