Organising the annual Hilda Canter-Lund competition to find the best photograph of algae is one of the pleasures of my year and the shortlist for the 2016 prize is now online. Choosing a shortlist this year was more difficult than usual, but we finally arrived at a set of images that spans marine and freshwater habitats and feature organisms which range in size from microscopic single cells to giant kelps.
Jamie Canepa’s image Adaptation in Action (left above) continues a trend in the competition of showing symbiotic relationships between algae and other organisms, in this case sea anenomes, photographed near Cape Sebastian in Oregon. John Huisman (right above), a former winner, shows a different type of relationship, with a filament of the Xanthophyte genus Vaucheria that has been parasitized by a rotifer (“Unwelcome guests: Vaucheria gall”).
The organism exploiting algae in Dani Machlis’ image(left above) is humans (“algae tubes”). He shows algae being grown for the biotechnology industry (in this case, a flavour and fragrance company based in Israel). Leah Reidenbach’s image (“A white Christmas in the Sea”) returns us to the natural world, showing sunlit blades of the giant kelp Macrocystis pyrifira at Monterey Bay, California. The white flecks in her image are “marine snow”, microscopic particles of organic material that become stuck together to form visible flecks of “snow” partly due to natural polymers produced by algae. Leah’s image, therefore, spans some of the smallest and largest members of the algal world.
Tiffany Stephens takes us to the edge of Antarctica for a beguilingly simple yet elegant composition (“Swell Life”) showing the intertidal zone of Snares Island, 200 km south of New Zealand, dominated by the brown alga Durvillaea antarctica. Finally, Petr Znachor’s image pulls us back from the macroscopic to the microscopic world, and from marine to freshwaters with his image “Freshwater phytoplankton dominated by desmids” showing algae found in a routine sample from a reservoir in the Czech Republic. This near-abstract composition is very much in the style of Hilda Canter-Lund herself.
I get real pleasure from watching the entries for each year’s competition arrive in my in-box, because the competition sits at the junction between art and science and I can be both entranced and educated by a single picture. The diversity of the algae, along with their worldwide distribution, means that no-one has such a comprehensive grasp of the field that they cannot be surprised by a particularly intriguing image. And the range of patterns within the algae allows photographers to push at the boundaries between “representation” and “abstraction” and submit entries that are far from run-of-the-mill natural history photography. The final twist comes from seeing which of these images will gain the ultimate accolade. The Council of the British Phycological Society vote to decide the winner and it is never easy to predict which of the shortlisted images will attract the most votes. The result for this year’s competition should be in before too long; meanwhile, have another look through the shortlist, and choose your own favourite …