Eerie photograph captures whales hunted off Greenland lying in their watery grave

Whales bones pictured underwater at the bottom of the seafloor next to a diver against a dark background
An image of minke whale skeletons has won the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 competition. (Image credit: Alex Dawson/UPY 2024)

An eerie image captures whale skeletons resting in their watery grave after being killed by hunters off Greenland. The whales had been taken to shore, stripped of the skin, blubber and meat, before being dragged back into the sea. There, they remain in the shallows to be consumed by marine invertebrates.

The photograph, taken by Alex Dawson, has won the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 competition after being selected from over 6,500 entries. "Whale Bones," was chosen as the winner because it "invites us to consider our impact on the great creatures of this planet," panel chair Alex Mustard said in a statement emailed to Live Science. 

"A very arresting image right from the start; for me this got bigger and better with every viewing," Mustard said. "The diver’s suit and torch give it a 'visiting alien' feel, the composition flows effortlessly and takes your eye on the right journey to tell the story." 

Dawson, from Sweden, took the photograph off Tasiilaq in Greenland, a town with a population of around 2,000 people that sits on the coast of the North Atlantic, roughly 66 miles (106 kilometers) south of the Arctic Circle. In the image, a freediver approaches one of two whale skeletons from above, with a gap in the ice above and a flashlight illuminating the bones. 

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Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales — species that feed by sieving plankton through plates in their mouths. Common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) are listed as of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Because of their size, they were generally considered too fast and small by the commercial whaling industry, and were only hunted when the numbers of other, larger species were depleted. The industry largely ended in the 1980s, however some minke populations are still killed as part of annual hunts. In east Greenland, an average of nine minke whales are killed each year. 

Dawson's image shows whales killed by hunters in Greenland, after the carcasses had been dragged back into the ocean by the high tide.  (Image credit: Alex Dawson/UPY 2024)

"In eastern Greenland the local hunters bring their catch and share it among each other," Dawson said in the statement. "From a stable population of over 100,000 minke whales in the North Atlantic the hunters of Tasiilaq typically take less than a dozen." Dawson said families from the town gather at low tide to cut off the skin, blubber and meat.

"Almost all the whale is consumed, however the skeleton is pulled back into the sea by the next high tide and the remains can be found in shallow waters where various marine invertebrates and fish pick the bones clean," he said. 

The Underwater Photographer of the Year competition was launched in 2015. This year, Dawson's image was the overall winner from 130 finalists. A selection of the other winning and highly commended images can be seen below. 

Martin Broen's image of tanks at the bottom of the ocean in Jordon was named winner of the "Wrecks" category. The tanks are part of an underwater military museum in Aqaba.  (Image credit: Martin Broen/UPY 2024)

Rodolphe Guignard's photograph "Twilight smile" shows a lemon shark off the island of Grand Bahama, which has been declared a "shark sanctuary."  "At dusk, several dozen lemon sharks rise from the depths and surround the dive boat. Perched on the swim-step with my body half-submerged, I set out to take split shots. On this day the sea was rough, it was almost dark, and the sharks were lively and very curious," he said in a statement. (Image credit: Rodolphe Guignard/UPY 2024)

Jenny Stock's photograph of brittlestars was taken in Scotland's Lock Leven. "As I descended into the dark green depths of the sea loch, on a dusk dive, I approached an area where my torch picked out the vivid colours of a living carpet of thousands of brittlestars," she said in the statement. (Image credit: Jenny Stock/UPY 2024)

Rafael Fernandez Caballero's close up image of a gray whale eye was taken off the coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. "This photo was taken from the boat, where the whale displayed a friendly gaze toward my camera, resembling a human look of curiosity and innocence," he said in a statement. (Image credit: Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2024)

Suliman Alatiqi's image of a crab-eating macaque was taken in the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand. These macaques can dive down for up to 30 seconds to scavenge for food, play and cool down, he said.  (Image credit: Suliman Alatiqi/UPY 2024)

Fernandez Caballero also won the "Behavior" category for his image of a Bryde's whale feasting on a bait ball off Baja California Sur.  (Image credit: Rafael Fernandez Caballero/UPY 2024)

Byron Conory's image of two pygmy seahorses was taken off the coast of Indonesia.  (Image credit: Byron Conory /UPY 2024)
Hannah Osborne

Hannah Osborne is the planet Earth and animals editor at Live Science. Prior to Live Science, she worked for several years at Newsweek as the science editor. Before this she was science editor at International Business Times U.K. Hannah holds a master's in journalism from Goldsmith's, University of London.