A South Bay photographer has earned the title “Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021,” becoming the first female to earn the prestigious accolade for capturing sea life on camera.

Renee Capozzola hopes her winning image of blacktip reef sharks, called “Sharks' Skylight,” will raise awareness for the species.

"Sharks are at the risk of extinction.  It is estimated that 70-100 million sharks are killed every year and, obviously, this is not sustainable,” she said in an e-mail. “Sharks are older than the dinosaurs, but without added legal protections today they may soon disappear, which would be very problematic because sharks help to balance the marine ecosystem.”

The image, shot in French Polynesia, was picked as the winner from more than 4,500 entries from 68 countries.  It features an underwater scene “of noble and imposing blacktip reef sharks, contrasted with the calm sorbet hues of the above-water sunset,” an announcement of the win reads.

It’s not the first time Capozzola has won awards for her photography.

In January 2020, she received the World Shootout Photo Competition award for USA Photographer of the Year, an honor she accepted in person at the ceremony held in Dusseldorf, Germany.

She was also a finalist last year in four categories and was part of the USA National Team that won the Championship category, along with teammates Ron Watkins, of New Jersey, and Jeff Milisen, of Hawaii.

The underwater-photo competition, which started in 2011, has become one of the most prestigious of its kind, drawing thousands of entries from around the world.

The Palos Verdes Estates resident and teacher at Palos Verdes High School for AP Biology and Honors Anatomy, first started diving in 2004, back then taking images with her disposable film camera.

It wasn’t until 2013 that she invested in a strobe light and better equipment to fine tune her craft.

A few years later she started entering, and winning, photography contests.

She’s earned the seascape division of the United Nations World Ocean Day photo competition, just one of the 40 or so international awards she’s earned. Most of her images are specialty “split shots,” which captures images half below and half above the ocean water.

The latest image was taken at her favorite place, French Polynesia, again capturing the blacktip reef shark.

"Most sharks are shy and difficult to approach underwater, so they can be challenging subjects to photograph,” she said.  “Sharks are awesome creatures and must be respected, but never once have I felt threatened by a shark in seventeen years of dive photography."

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