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Cute or spooky? Seal wins approval in underwater photo contest

How could you resist a cute harbor seal looking at you from a kelp forest off the California coast? The judges for the 2013 Underwater Photography Contest clearly couldn't: They chose Kyle McBurnie's picture of a soulful seal as the competition's top image.

McBurnie, the 22-year-old co-founder of SD Expeditions, said he snapped the picture during a dive at Cortes Bank near San Diego. "Five or 10 harbor seals just came out and played with me for a while," he recalled. "One of them came up and bit me on the fin."

The seal in the picture had a haunting look on its face as it watched a sea lion pass nearby, and that's the look that McBurnie captured with his camera. "It gave me a ghostly, emotional feel," he told NBC News.

The annual contest has been presented since 2005 by the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. For turning in the best overall photography, McBurnie gets a free cruise in the Bahamas, plus $300 in spending money. The top three winners in four categories — wide angle, macro, fish or marine animal portrait, and a category for University of Miami students — get cash prizes or gift certificates.

The contest is open to amateur photographers only, and all the entries have to show marine life in a natural freshwater or salt-water environment. This year's judges included photographers Myron Wang and Nicole Wang as well as marine researcher Jiangang Luo. More than 650 entries were received from 23 countries.

McBurnie's photo isn't the only one to pack an emotional punch: In one photo, a male banded jawfish shows off a mouthful of eggs. In another, a gaudy lionfish stands out against the background of wriggling swarms of fish. Yet another photo shows a scary shark lurking beneath a splash of filtered sunlight. Click through the slideshow, and feel free to share your own sea tales in the comment section below.

More underwater views:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.