LCAD Reception Pays Tribute to BlueBelt Photo Contest Winners   


It was standing room only as visitors filled the LCAD Gallery during Laguna Beach’s Thursday’s Art Walk to celebrate this year’s winners of the 12th Annual Laguna Bluebelt Photo Contest. The Laguna Bluebelt partnered with the Laguna College of Art + Design for a dramatic exhibition of photos by amateur and professional photographers alike. Laguna’s radio personality, Tommy J, entertained with his gentle ukulele tunes drifting through the LCAD Gallery.  

In the professional category, Noah Gilbert’s “A Sea Star Is Born” won first place in the Laguna Bluebelt photo contest. Photo/Noah Gilbert. 

“It is so inspiring to see the wide variety of photos capturing the many ways we enjoy and document the success of Laguna’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), now entering their ten year review by the California Fish & Wildlife Commission” Photo Contest Coordinator Anne Girtz. “We so appreciate the time, talent and effort photographers invest in bringing dramatic images to reveal Laguna’s iconic sea life and beach lifestyle.” This year’s renowned contest judges contributed an international perspective, capturing how the public appreciates and enjoys Laguna Beach’s citywide Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

“We are thrilled to announce the winners of this year’s photo contest – through the lenses of these talented photographers, we are reminded of the unique biodiversity, natural beauty, and need to protect our precious marine protected areas, she added.”

This year’s judges were Sea Legacy’s co-founder Cristina Mittermeier, 

Rich German, ocean activist and author of “Blue Laguna” and research diver Julianne Steers.

Charles Keller’s “Surfer at the Beach” won first prize in the amateur category. Photo/Charles Keller

“The primary goal of the Bluebelt Photo Contest is to provide an opportunity to share the enthusiasm among photographers and the public for Laguna’s incredible sea life protected now for ten years,” said contest co-founder Jinger Wallace.

The first-place professional winner and $500 went to “A Star is Born” by Noah Gilbert. The photo chronicles the recovery of sea stars suffering from a devastating sea star wasting syndrome. At the lowest tide, a tiny bat star clings to the inside of a mussel shell and is shipwrecked on a patch of seaweed.

“Surf and Shadows” by Christian Welch won second prize and $300. Palm shadows, cast by the early morning sun, paint the sand. Beneath the shadows, a boogie boarder and a surfer share an unlikely friendship as crystal waters slowly climb up the beach.

The third-place winner with a $200 prize was “Over the Sunset” by Andre Magarao. 

“I feel like this year has been full of gray sunsets, but I was lucky enough to link up with current skimboarding world champion Lucas Fink for one of the few cool sunsets we had over the winter,” Magarao said about his submission.

A half-in and-half-out photograph in the tide pool with flash assist, “Shell Set” by Sean Brown received an honorable mention, as did the tubular wave in “Sunset Lookout” by Craig Hatfield who shot the photo late Sunday afternoon in the water as the sun was setting in Laguna Beach. 

“I used my waterproof camera/housing and 12 mm lens to get the wide angle to show the entire inside of the wave and the landscape in the background,” he said.

In the amateur category, first place, with an award of $400, was “Surfer at the Beach” by Charles Keller. Second place and $200 went to “Dances with Dolphins” by Bassim El Hatem.

“On a beautiful sunset paddle, a pod of playful dolphins began to head in my direction,” El Hatem said. “Fortunately, I had my camera and hoped I would be in a position to capture them as they passed with the gorgeous setting sun. No matter how many times I get to experience this, it’s just as incredible every single time.”

“Anemone Crown” by Susana Cruciana took third place. 

“The tidepools were full of color at Treasure Island in December 2022. This anemone looked like he was wearing a crown. Purple urchins added a splash of color,” she said of her work.

An honorable mention was awarded to “The Forever Tidepools” by Roger Su.

 “Goff Island and its surrounding tide pools are nature’s gifts for us to enjoy and protect,” Su said. “There is another world out there among the tide and rocks, a realm blooming with hidden life, occasionally revealing itself to our human eyes. Precious are the sea creatures of Mother Earth.”

“Eye Worthy” by Yvonne Bellgardt was another honorable mention. 

“I was exploring Shaw’s Cove tide pools during low tide and ran across this sweet octopus that we named Ophelia. She was stretching her legs for all to see.”

The reception also recognized Orange County Register reporter Erika Ritchie for her decades of reports and stories highlighting the challenges and success of individuals and groups dedicated to protecting and restoring MPAs now threatened by ocean pollution, harmful algae blooms and rising sea temperatures. A complete list of winners and their photos can be viewed at

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  1. Thanks to the many photographers entering the 12th Annual Bluebelt Photo Contest for your beautiful, inspiring images capturing the many ways we experience and enjoy Laguna’s iconic Marine Protected areas (MPAs).

    The ocean controls the climate. We determine the health of the ocean and sea life.


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