Karim Iliya Wins Best Underwater Photography Awards

We’re excited to announce that Oceanic Ambassador Karim Iliya recently won two top awards in the world of underwater photography!

From world-class divers, explorers, to creatives pushing their field, at Oceanic, we get to rub shoulders (and gas tanks) with some of the most talented folks in diving—and Karim is at the top of his game!

Awarded by UPY—the leading organization in underwater photo recognition—Iliya took home two of the top spots for his work in capturing marine animal behavior and marine conservation. In response to his wins, we reached out to Iliya to learn the context for the winning shots and what they meant to him specifically. 

“While both awards are wonderful,” he wrote in an email, “winning the marine conservation category meant a lot to me. I started my journey trying to take beautiful photos for the sake of aesthetics, but as the state of environments and oceans became more urgent, it became much more apparent that I need to work towards using my photography to try and help marine conservation.”

Karim’s Winning Underwater Shots

Best underwater photos

Underwater Photography Award—Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2021: ‘Aerial view of a crowded island in Guna Yala’

Oceanic: Tell us about the shot that earned you the Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2021 award…

Karim Iliya: For a long time I’ve been struggling to show the relationship between humans and nature in one image. We humans are consuming space at such a rapid rate, often to the detriment of nature. The location of this image is not so important. But it’s a reminder of the importance of humanity’s relationship with nature which becomes very apparent when you look at our species from a bird’s eye perspective.

I don’t have the solutions, but I do know how important it is that we work together to secure a better planet for the future. This tightly inhabited village serves as a microcosm of how humans across the planet are consuming land and space at a rapid rate. 

Most of the people [in this area] live on these densely populated islands, catching fish and farming coconuts on islands nearby. The importance of humanity’s relationship with nature and the need to protect it becomes very apparent when you look at our species from a bird’s eye view and see how much space we take up. 


I had come to this region to photograph the art of making mola, the traditional clothing that the local people wear.  While waiting on a boat I flew my drone over this island to get this aerial perspective, which lent more impact to the image than I could have shooting at sea level or from  underwater. 

I want to thank the judges, the competition organizers and especially everybody in the world who is working hard to protect our planet. We can do this together!

All of the work that we’re doing is important, whether it’s small-scale on an individual level or large-scale organizations and governments. Let’s do this together and secure a better future for our planet and our oceans.

Best underwater photos

Underwater Photography Award—Behavior Category: ‘A striped marlin in a high speed hunt in Mexico’

Oceanic: What about the Behavior Category? What’s the story behind that shot? 

Karim Iliya: The behavior category hopefully shows how incredible these species are, ones that we don’t normally think much about. It is important to appreciate the struggles of life and death in the animal kingdom, and the delicate balance of nature.

This shot specifically portrays a terrifying scene for the small fish, fleeing for their lives as a striped marlin hunts them. The slightest mistake means life or death. To boot, there are often birds hunting from above and sometimes a dozen other marlin and sea lions attacking from all sides. 

Marlin are one of the fastest fish in the world, a terrifying predator for a small fish in the great blue desert. I went to Mexico to document these feeding frenzies but was not expecting such a fast-paced hunt, almost too fast for my brain to process. 


I run trips each year to take people swimming with these animals and watch them hunt alongside sea lions. And generally, I try and stay on the periphery so as not to disturb the behavior. But every once in a while the little bait fish will swarm towards you, with the idea that you might provide some sort of protection. 

For a brief moment, this scene unfolded before me and I had to rely on all my instincts and practice underwater to take this photo. I used natural light and stayed on the periphery of the baitball so as to try and minimize disturbance. Watching wild animals hunt is one of the greatest spectacles in nature!

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