The photo of a humpback whale calf’s tail has earned Reiko Takahashi of Japan the prestigious grand-prize in the 2018 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contestTakahashi’s incredible photo was selected by a panel of National Geographic judges from more than 13,000 entries and will receive a $10,000 USD prize.

Takahashi took her grand prize-winning photo, titled “Mermaid,” off the coast of Japan’s Kumejima Island. The long-time photographer left her office job to pursue her passion for underwater photography and traveled to Kumejima Island on a mission to photograph humpback whales with their young calves.

“It was a special scene for me, to be able to take a photo of the calf, completely relaxed in gentle waters,” said Takahashi.

The National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contest celebrates stunning pictures taken by all levels of photographers around the world. The 2018 contest recognizes spectacular photos taken within the last two years, with entries in three categories: Nature, People and Cities.

Takahashi’s photo was also chosen as the winner in the Nature category. Hiro Kurashina of Japan took top honors in the Cities category for his photo titled “Another Rainy Day in Nagasaki, Kyushu,” while “Tea Culture” by Alessandra Meniconzi of Switzerland won the People category in this year’s Travel Photographer of the Year.

Mermaid

Photo & Caption: Reiko Takahashi

First Place winner, Nature

I was fortunate to have encountered a humpback whale with her calf on my first day snorkeling near Japan’s Kumejima Island. Most of the time, the calf stayed close to her mom. At one point, the calf began jumping and tapping its tail on the water near us—it was very friendly and curious. Finally, the mother, who was watching nearby, came to pick up the calf and swim away. I fell in love completely with the calf and its very energetic, large, and beautiful tail.

humpback whale nat geo

Flamingos Take Off

Photo & Caption: Hao J

Second place winner, Nature

Thousands of flamingos are seen taking off from the colorful Lake Natron in Tanzania. Before taking off, flamingos need to take a short run on water to build up some speed. At that moment, their long, red legs create a series of water ripples on the surface of the lake. Looking down from the helicopter, these ripple lines look like giant aquatic plants flowing in the water. This photo was taken from a helicopter.

flamingos nat geo

Mars

Photo & Caption: Marco Grassi

Third Place winner, Nature

These natural sand towers, capped with large stones, are known as the Earth Pyramids of Platten. They are situated in Northern Italy’s South Tyrol region. Formed centuries ago after several storms and landslides, these land formations look like a landscape from outer space and continuously change over the years and, more accurately, over seasons.

This natural phenomenon is the result of continuous alternation between periods of torrential rain and drought, which have caused the erosion of the terrain and the formation of these pinnacles. As the seasons change, the temperatures move between extremes and storms affect the area, pyramids disappear over time, while new pinnacles form as well.

mars platten southern italy nat geo

Formation

Photo & Caption: Niklas Weber

People’s Choice, Nature

When we arrived at the Río Grande de Tarcoles in Costa Rica, I saw a fantastic formation of the sharp-mouthed crocodiles. I couldn’t help myself, and I started my drone and began to photograph them from the air. My heart was beating like crazy because I was incredibly excited, on the one hand I was a bit scared for the drone, on the other hand I was so happy about the unique moment.

alligators nat geo

Another Rainy Day in Nagasaki, Japan

Photo & Caption: Hiro Kurashina

First Place Winner, Cities

This is a view of the main street from a tram in Nagasaki on a rainy day. The tram is vintage, but retrofitted with modern ticketing equipment. A conductor is no longer on board—only the lone driver. The quiet streetscape seen through the front windshield of the tram somehow caught my attention. This view presents quite a contrast to busy urban centers in Japan, such as Tokyo and Osaka. The ride on a vintage tram through the relatively quiet main street was a memorable experience during our week-long visit to the historic city of Nagasaki.

nagasaki japan nat geo

Geometry of the Sun

Photo & Caption: Enrico Pescantini

Second Place Winner, Cities

Teotihuacan means ‘the place where the gods were created,’ and that’s the exact feeling visitors have when they walk along the Avenue of the Dead at this Mexican archeological site. This pyramid was dedicated to the god of Sun, and I found it mesmerizing how the rising sun in the picture conquered just half the image, while the other half is in the shadows. I planned my visit to Teotihuacan at sunrise, to get a combination of golden sunlight, play of shadows, and few crowds around. I flew my drone to see if the image I had in my mind was really out there: luckily for me, this frame was just waiting for my camera!

Avenue of the Dead mexico nat geo

Reflection

Photo & Caption: Gaanesh Prasad

Third Place Winner, Cities

On an early morning, I wanted to photograph the fog, which is epic in Dubai every year from December to January—and almost every photographer’s dream in this part of the world. Sadly, I could not get access to the rooftop and so I peeped through the glazed window on a lower floor. I was overwhelmed and excited to see how beautiful the city looks, and my excitement was quadrupled as soon as I saw the reflection of the road and building on the building facade that I was in. I immediately opened the window to the maximum permissible amount and clicked a single shot with stretched hands.

cities nat geo reflection

Alone in the Crowds

Photo & Caption: Gary Cummins

Honorable Mention, Cities

In this photo, I tried to bring the intense and stacked living conditions that Hong Kong is famous for into perspective for the viewer. With so many people living in small spaces, it’s strange to see all these amenities empty. As a solo traveler, I’m often alone in crowds and this photo resonates with me. I barely scratched the surface of this incredible urban environment, but this image really summarizes my experience here.

alone in the crowds nat geo

Traveling to Heaven

Photo & Caption: Trikansh Sharma

People’s Choice, Cities

A traveler is seen riding across Ram Jhula bridge in India. When I was at this location, I suddenly noticed a man on a bicycle coming towards the bridge—luckily the bridge was otherwise empty. I framed this moment in my mind—which is a good example for travel photography—and then pressed the shutter to capture the image. In this photograph, the bridge has no ending point and looks as if the man is traveling towards heaven.

Traveling to heaven nat geo

This year’s Travel Photographer of the Year competition was judged by Whitney Johnson, vice president of visual experiences at National Geographic, as well as two National Geographic contributing photographers — ocean and adventure photographer Andy Mann and polar photographer Camille Seaman. All of the winning and honorable mention photos can be viewed at natgeo.com/travelphotocontest.

Also Read: 

National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Winners: Best Photos 2017

30 Best small cities in the US, according to Nat Geo