World's funniest wildlife photo 2020: Photographer Mark Fitzpatrick on capturing great shots

It was an image so hilarious yet so apt that it resonated around a pandemic-scarred world. A turtle is pictured off Queensland doing just what everyone felt like doing to 2020 - flipping it the bird with a perfectly positioned flipper.

The photo of Terry the green sea turtle, taken off Lady Elliott Island, was actually shot in 2018, but took out the award for world's funniest wildlife photo in 2020 - a year when the world needed as many laughs as it could get. 

To be fair, Terry was flipping the bird to only one person - Queensland-based photographer Mark Fitzpatrick who captured the underwater image.

Fitzpatrick had spent about four to five hours out on the water, taking about 4000-5000 shots all up, including several of Terry. It wasn't until he was off the boat some hours later and looking through the photos that he realised what he had captured.

The Mackay-based photographer sent the photo to his girlfriend, Emilie-Jain Palmer, 32, who confirmed what he thought – the turtle was giving him the finger.  The photo appeared on Fitzpatrick's Instagram account where it caught the interest of the team at the Worldwide Funniest Wildlife Photo Award.

Fitzpatrick ditched his accountancy job in Mildura and turned to photography full-time a few years back after meeting his girlfriend, then a radio announcer, when he was holidaying in Queensland. He returned to Mildura, packed his bags, and relocated. "You can be an accountant anywhere," he says with a laugh.

He always liked taking holiday photos, but the idea of making photography his profession came after photos he took of a storm were published in a regional newspaper. It was an affirmation that  his photos were actually good. Now Fitzpatrick is living his dream - travelling and photographing above and below incredible stretches of water.   

Which photographic destination has left an impact on you and why?

"Lady Musgrave Island is probably the place that has had the most impact on me as a photographer. It's where I took my first under or over style photos," he says.

Fitzpatrick had mainly been shooting landscapes frames up until this point. The experience allowed him to broaden his style. "Those photos from Lady Musgrave were really well received on social media and I loved that I was able to combine what was happening below the surface with the world above.


"There weren't a lot of those types of photos being shot at the time and it's where I fell in love with underwater photography."

How important is having a sense of humour as a photographer?

"I definitely think you need to be able to laugh at some of the situations that unfold," Fitzpatrick says referring to some tricky situations he has faced especially when wild weather hits. "You can do all the planning in the world for a shoot but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and you just need to be able to laugh about it."

What's the biggest lesson you have learned being a photographer?

"Patience," Fitzpatrick says. "Especially when it comes to working with wildlife," he adds.

"You have zero control and if you make any sudden movements or noises then you can easily spook the animal and they'll take off and you'll lose the chance to get the shot."

Fitzpatrick says taking the time to observe subject animals and understand when and why they do certain things can help you get a good shot.

Have you been in any hairy situations?

Fitzpatrick was in Papua New Guinea to shoot images of the fish and coral around the islands. He'd just gotten into the water for the first snorkel of the trip when he felt tingles on his arm. "I thought it was just sea lice to start with but it quickly got a lot more painful and I realised I was covered in jellyfish tentacles," he says.

Fitzpatrick hurried from the water and locals came running down the beach to help pick off the tentacles that were wrapped around his stomach, back, arms and legs. He and his team then caught a boat back to the main island where the stings were doused in vinegar. It took an hour for the pain to go away.

While it was "the most painful experience" he'd had, it didn't stop him returning to the water.

"I really needed to get a few shots so the day wasn't wasted. There weren't any wet suits or stinger suits around, so I just had to risk it and get back in the water. Fortunately, I didn't get stung again and I managed to get a few good shots."

What are your tips for posting travel photos on social media?

"It's important to focus on quality and capturing something unique," Fitzpatrick says, noting the thousands of photos being uploaded daily. "If you want to stand out then your images have to grab people's attention. Try shooting from a different angle to give viewers a unique perspective."

How important is technology as a photographer?

Fitzpatrick says technology and understanding it is incredibly important as a working photographer. One example, he explains, is the drone. "In the last five years drones have come onto the scene and given photographers a whole new way of shooting destinations. They're now a standard piece of equipment and clients now expect that you'll have a drone as well," he says.

Social media  helps him keep up-to-date with tech changes. "I'm regularly researching destinations on social media and quite often if there's a photo that really stands out and it's been shot in a completely unique way, then I'll find out as much as possible about that shot including the technology that's been used to capture it."

What are your top five places in Australia?

Check out the gallery at the top of the article to see Mark's photos of these destinations

1. Lady Elliot Island

"Lady Elliot has so many turtles living in the waters around it and the reef is so vibrant and healthy, and the water visibility is incredible. It's a must-visit if you love snorkelling and diving."

2. The Whitsundays

"It's home to one of the best beaches in the world (Whitehaven Beach), so many beautiful islands, as well as fantastic reefs to snorkel. I'm also very lucky to have it just one and a half hours from where I live so I get to visit pretty regularly."

3. Lord Howe Island

"It's an island unlike any other in Australia. The two towering peaks of Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird dominate the skyline and the island is surrounded by the world's most southern coral reef, which is full of amazing marine life. The landscapes here are unlike any other island that I've visited in Australia."

4. Nitmiluk Gorge

"Out of all the places I've travelled to, Nitmiluk Gorge has been one of the most captivating with a very spiritual feeling to it. The ancient Aboriginal rock art, mesmerising landscapes and stunning sunrises and sunsets here will leave you feeling awestruck long after you've gone."

5. Esperance

"As a beach lover this place is heaven. Esperance has so many beaches to choose from and all of them with ridiculously clear waters and bright white sand. The most famous spot here is Lucky Bay with kangaroos that frequently hop up and down the beach and about an hour from Lucky Bay is the clearest wave I've ever seen at a place called Wharton Beach."

And what's your favourite travel experience beyond Australia?

"Swimming with the reef sharks and rays at Moorea in French Polynesia," Fitzpatrick says.

"Gigantic, luscious green jagged mountains drop straight down into the turquoise ocean and the morning I spent here snorkelling and photographing the reef sharks and rays was a dream come true."

Follow Mark on Instagram @_markfitz

See also: 'The world flipped': Globetrotting Aussie photographers focus on home

See also: Photo of two cuddling penguins in St Kilda wins global photography award