A curious sea otter pup peeks out from behind a column of kelp while it forages for crabs or snails off California’s Monterey Bay. Each of these furry marine mammals might eat about 15 pounds of shellfish meat daily.
Yet in the early 1900s, this scene might be extremely rare, as the fur trade drove these aquatic predators to near-extinction. Fortunately, efforts such as reintroducing animals to the wild have helped the species rebound, though they’re still not out of the woods. The southern sea otter, a subspecies, is threatened in California, with only 3,000 animals remaining.
Ralph Pace’s photograph, published in the February issue of National Geographic, provides a close-up look at wildlife in their native habitat. It’s also one of 18 photos that National Geographic’s photo editors chose as our best wildlife photos of the year.
“The images chosen this year reflect the wide range of stories we covered—across species, ecosystems, geographies and photographic styles—that convey the wonder, surprise, humor and vulnerability of the creatures with whom we share the planet,” says visual lead for natural history and conservation storytelling Alexa Keefe.
She hopes these images inspire a love of the natural world. Some of the animals featured represent success stories, like the endangered African wild dogs, whose populations have stabilized in Mozambique’s Niassa Special Reserve thanks to investment from locals. Others are imperiled—like mountain hares in the Scottish Highlands that have evolved to camouflage with snow, but they could face an uncertain future in an increasingly snowless world. Others simply encourage us to take a closer look at the creatures who inhabit our wondrous world—like the hidden beauty and charm of spiders or the amazing techniques orcas use to capture out-of-reach prey.