Stunning underwater photos that will take your breath away

There’s something magical about underwater photos. If you don’t believe us, imagine Nirvana’s Nevermind cover with the baby lying on a rug instead of swimming in a pool.

Stock photo libraries are packed with thrilling underwater shots, but there are lots of gems on Flickr, in Wikimedia and in other libraries too, and you can often use those photos in your own creations too.

Here are some of the most astounding underwater photos we’ve seen; some are astounding because of the moment they captured; others because of the stories of their subjects, and still others because of what they say about what we humans have done to so many species.

Please note that the last photo may not be appropriate for younger viewers.

Polar Bear

Not everything you see underwater lives underwater. Visitors like this polar bear are bad news for seals, because they’re looking for their dinner: for many seals this face may be the last thing they see, as it’s attached to a body weighing as much as 450Kg. Polar bears are yet another species suffering because of humans: climate change is destroying the ice on which they live, and they were classified as a threatened species by the US in 2008.

Grey Shark

Greek-based photographer has made good use of colour in this photo of a grey shark: it looks a lot more sinister than it actually is, because the grey shark isn’t really dangerous to humans unless you wear a swimsuit made of raw meat. Like many marine photographs this one has a sad undercurrent, because like many sharks the grey shark is suffering from declining numbers after years of commercial fishing: while they’re protected species, illegal fishing still occurs.

Humboldt Penguin

Guichard is from London, but you won’t see many Humboldts around there: it’s native to South America, although this particular shot was taken in a bird park in France. You probably guessed that from the background colour: underwater shots in relatively small enclosures tend to be much greener than ones taken in the great outdoors. Nevertheless it’s a superb shot, capturing some really excellent side-eye from its subject.

Blue Dragon-Glaucus Atlanticus

Technically this photo is only slightly underwater, as its subject was washed up into a rock pool – but we’re including it because it’s a great example of how otherworldly so many marine creatures can be. This little blue beauty is better known as a sea swallow, blue sea slug or Lizard Nudibranch, which would be an excellent stage name for someone in a band. It’s a small, blue sea slug that floats upside down in water; the blue colouring is camouflage so that it blends in with the blue of water, while the underwater side is silvery-grey. Don’t pick one up if you see one: they deliver a very painful sting.

Seal Underwater

The NOAA is the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the scientific agency that concentrates on the oceans and the atmosphere. Its Flickr feed is full of amazing images like this one, taken on Hawaii’s Pearl and Hermes reef. We love it because it captures the playful curiosity of the seal really well. This particular seal is a young monk seal, one of two remaining types of monk seal: the third, the Caribbean monk seal, is extinct. This chap is a Hawaiian monk seal, the only seal native to Hawaii and sadly yet another name on the endangered species list.

Humpback Whale

This beautiful photo of a humpback whale inspecting a diver is all over the internet – and sadly it’s usually posted without credit on wallpaper sites, free photo sites and so on. Once again we’re in the good hands of the NOAA, and this photo helps communicate the scale and majesty of this extraordinary creature. Some humpbacks can grow as long as 16 metres and weigh up to 30 metric tons, which is all the more incredible when you hit YouTube for videos of them hurling themselves into the air. This is one creature you really don’t want belly flopping onto your pedal. 

A Magnificent Siphonophore

If we didn’t trust the NOAA we’d think they’d made this one in a 3D modelling app. The wondrously coloured Siphonophore is a Cnidaria, which is a group of creatures that includes coral and jellyfish such as the infamous Portuguese Man O’ War, and some of them are incredibly big: specimens as long as 40 metres have been discovered. The most colourful ones live in the deepest waters and some are even bioluminescent, glowing when disturbed. They’re predators but they’re also very vulnerable as they break very easily.

Underwater Woman

Let’s have some art. This striking image by Engin Akyurt is our favourite in a series of underwater shots: we like the composition, the stillness of the model and the contrast between the deep black of the background and the bright red of the model’s dress. Stock photo libraries contain quite a few arty underwater shots – for example, Adobe Stock has a selection of women in brightly coloured clothes and of couples swimming while wearing formal clothes – but we prefer this one: it does more with less.

Purple and Pink Jellyfish

Aren’t jellyfish weird? This could be a space alien, or the pattern made by something leaking ink into water. It’s a brilliantly colourful image by the very versatile Tim Mossholder, whose photos often make great use of colour as in this photo. We don’t know what particular species this jellyfish is, but the combination of purple and pink usually spells bad news for its prey and of any humans unlucky enough to get too close.

Scuba Diver near Brown Turtle

We love all photos of turtles because of their fantastically unimpressed expressions, but we particularly like this one because Tom Fisk’s use of perspective makes it look like the diver is approaching a turtle that’s much bigger than he is. The picture was shot off Komodo Island in Indonesia, which is home to five species of sea turtles – and while this particular turtle isn’t a giant, they can grow up to 2m long and can weigh up to 590kg.

Pink and Brown Jellyfish

Kalisinski has taken some beautiful shots in the warm, clear waters around Mallorca, and this close shot of an otherworldly jellyfish is great: it’s captured not just the weird blobbiness of its subject but the floating tendrils it uses to catch its meals. Although Kalisinski doesn’t name the jellyfish we think it’s Pelagia Noctiluca, a relatively small and quite unusual sight in the Majorcan waters but one you don’t want to get on the wrong side of: those tentacles can cause pain, burning and muscle cramps.

Red Jellyfish

There’s weird, and then there’s Red Jellyfish weird. This luminous lovely looks like a visitor from another planet, and we’d love to know who took the photo, where they took it and what particular kind of jellyfish this is. Sadly Pixabay can only tell us that it was shot in 2013 on a Panasonic DMC-FZ200, which isn’t really very helpful.

Man in Water

Who needs extraordinary creatures when you can get a scuba diver to blow some bubbles from his mask? This unattributed shot from Pixabay works brilliantly because it’s free of context: we can make up the entire backstory and imagine he’s a spy, or he’s just spotted a really big and angry shark.

Isla Mujeres

There’s something haunting about man-made things that weren’t designed to live at the bottom of the sea, and the photo sites are packed with fascinating photos of shipwrecks and other vehicles that ended up where they weren’t intended. But as interesting as they are, we’re more drawn to the ruins of architecture and of amazing things like these sunken statues from the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres. It looks like the aftermath of a tragedy but it’s actually a modern art museum, which is pretty astounding.

Sea Turtle in fishing net

Our final photograph is the saddest: taken by Greenpeace photographer Salvatore Barbera, aka Capitan Giona, it’s the body of a turtle drowned by a fishing net. While much fishing is of course environmentally responsible it still has its victims, and illegal overfishing has brought some species to the very brink of extinction. But it’s not just fishing that threatens marine life. Pollution, especially in the form of plastics, is taking a heavy toll too.