Death on the beach wins Nature Photographer of the Year competition

The entwined cycles of life and death are brought into vivid focus in Broome photographer Mat Beetson’s Fin Whale’s Demise, the winning shot in this year’s Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year competition.

“I planned a photographic trip with a really good mate in Albany and surrounding areas in the Great Southern region of Western Australia,” Beetson tells The Adelaide Review. “But the day we’d arrived into town there was a huge fire that ripped through the town, that blocked off a lot of access points to the area we’d planned to photograph.”

While trying to find a way to salvage the trip over breakfast, Beetson’s companion saw a news item on his phone about a whale that had beached itself on nearby Cheynes Beach. “We quickly made a plan to go out and have a look – it certainly wasn’t on my radar to photograph, but we were curious,” he says of the trip’s fortuitous turn.

“We parked the car and the whale was about five metres from the shore line, which isn’t really evident in the photo,” he says. “We saw some thrashing around near the carcass and quickly realised there were some sharks, and more than one. I raced back to the car, grabbed the drone and launched it into the air. I’ve got a few photos with the shark right on the whale itself, then right towards the end of the shoot as it was swimming away I managed to capture that shot.

Arriving not long after the whale’s death, Beetson‘s shot captures the process of decay at its earliest stage – the unforgettable aroma of whale decomposition had barely set in. “That just made the whole scene that much more surreal,” he says. “I get out of the car on this pristine beach in a small coastal town, residential homes are less than 100m away. It was just a surreal experience.

Mat Beetson's photograph entitled Fin Whale's Demise
Mat Beetson’s photograph entitled Fin Whale’s Demise

“We were lucky that my friend was scrolling the news when we came across it, and even luckier that there were some sharks around to make that shot a bit more of a story.”

Rising to the top of a pool of 2,210 entries, Beetson’s image is the first drone photograph to win the competition, and is a striking example of the potential of this increasingly prevalent technology. “The actual flying of the drone is addictive – it’s really good fun,” he says. “Then when you’re reviewing the what’s on your screen, it’s a fairly different perspective to what we’re used to seeing as a human with our feet on the ground. There’s a huge amount of people shooting with drones, offering that different perspective, and I think there’s still so much that hasn’t been seen from a drone just yet.”

For Beetson, whose love of the “rawness and beauty” of nature has taken him around the world, the pursuit of the perfect shot isn’t always everything. “We were tracking some cheetahs in Africa and I had to put all the equipment down because they were hunting,” he recalls of an earlier trip. “To see them take off, and witness their speed, and see the animals they were chasing flee in panic… it was a moment where I just needed to put the camera down and witness the absolute beauty of what was happening.

“For me, obviously I want to try and capture those awesome and beautiful moments, but sometimes it’s just worth putting the camera and witnessing what’s in front of you, taking it all in.”

Fin Whale’s Demise will be on display at the South Australian Museum alongside all 2019 competition finalists from mid-August.

Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year exhibition 2019
South Australian Museum
August 16 – November 10
samuseum.sa.gov.au

The Adelaide Review is a media partner of the South Australian Museum

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.