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3rd Place in Cities: Reflection, taken in Dubai, UAE.
Gaanesh Prasad/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

National Geographic's Top Travel Photos of the Year Are Breathtaking

Reiko Takahashi went from sitting at a desk to diving off the coast of Japan's Kumejima Island to photograph humpback whales.

It was the ultimate "follow your dreams" story, and her passion was vindicated when an especially poignant image of a humpback whale won the 2018 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contest.

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Takahashi beat out more than 13,000 entries. 

"It was a special scene for me, to be able to take a photo of the calf, completely relaxed in gentle waters,” Takahashi said in a press release. “I really cannot believe it. It was my dream to win. I am honored and it will be the driving force for my future shooting." 

The full gallery of winners can be seen here. As always, the contest includes breathtaking scenes of Earth's biodiversity and human endeavor. Some of the top images can be seen below. 


NG_TPOY_GRANDPRIZE-NATURE1.jpgNature, 1st Place and Grand Prize Winner. Title: Mermaid, taken in Kumejima, Japan.
Image: Photo and Caption by Reiko Takahashi/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

1st Place & Grand Prize Winner: "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 it’s very energetic, large and beautiful tail." — Reiko Takahashi

NG_TPOY_NATURE_2ND.jpgNature, 2nd Place. Title: Flamingos Taking Off, taken in Lake Natron, Tanzania.
Image: Photo and Caption by hao j. / National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

2nd Place: "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." — hao j

NG_TPOY_NATURE_3RD.jpgNature, 3rd Place. Title: Mars, taken in Brunico, South Tyrol, Italy.
Image: Photo and Caption by Marco Grassi/ National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

3rd Place: "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 a 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." — Marco Grassi


NG_TPOY_CITIES_1ST.jpgCities, 1st Place. Title: Another Rainy Day in Nagasaki, Kyushu, taken in Nagasaki, Japan.
Image: Photo and Caption by Hiro Kurashina/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

1st Place: "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." — Hiro Kurashina

NG_TPOY_CITIES_2ND.jpgCities, 2nd Place. Title: Geometry of the Sun, taken in Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Image: Photo and Caption by Enrico Pescantini/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

2nd Place: "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 have always loved archeology and ancient civilizations, so I couldn't wait to visit Mexico and explore the remains of the pre-Columbian civilization. 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!" — Enrico Pescantini

NG_TPOY_CITIES_3RD.jpgCities, 3rd Place. Title: Reflection, taken in Dubai, UAE.
Image: Photo and Caption by Gaanesh Prasad/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

3rd Place: "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 that I was in. I immediately opened the window to the maximum permissible amount and clicked a single shot with stretched hands." — Gaanesh Prasad

NG_TPOY_CITIES_HONMEN.jpgCities, Honorable Mention. Title: Alone in the Crowds, taken in Hong Kong, China.
Image: Photo and Caption by Gary Cummins/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

Honorable Mention: "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." — Gary Cummins


NG_TPOY_PEOPLE_1ST.jpgPeople, 1st Place. Title: Tea Culture, taken in Altai Mountains, Western Mongolia.
Image: Photo and Caption by Alessandra Meniconzi/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

1st Place: "For a long time, I have been fascinated by the ancient Mongolian method of hunting with Golden Eagles. In early 2018, I followed one family of eagle hunters during their migration from winter camp to spring camp. Mongolia is sparsely populated, but the inhabitants have a very hospitable and welcoming culture. Tea for Kazakh culture is one of the attributes of hospitality. Tea isn't just a drink, but a mix of tradition, culture, relaxation, ceremony, and pleasure. Damel, seen here wrapped in heavy fur clothes, drinks a cup of tea to keep warm from the chilly temperatures in Western Mongolia." — Alessandra Meniconzi

NG_TPOY_PEOPLE_2ND.jpgPeople, 2nd Place. Title: Leida and Laelle- I Will Lift You Up, taken in Estrela, Rio Grande do Sul State, Brazil.
Image: Photo and Caption by Tati Itat/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

2nd Place: "Since 2016, I've been involved with Haitian immigrants and refugees living in my city, Estrela. I have become friends with some families, and especially with twin sisters, Leïda and Laëlle. They say living in Brazil is like living in paradise — very different from the reality of their country of origin. They dream of becoming models and teachers, as a way to earn money to bring their other relatives from Haiti to Brazil, to live all near one another. On this day, they were playing in front of their home, improvising exercises to develop their imagination and creativity, as if they were actresses, and playing an imitation game with poses. Laëlle reached for Leida's face and lifted her head up, showing her where she should look. At this brief moment, I took the photo." — Tati Itat

NG_TPOY_PEOPLE_3RD.jpgPeople, 3rd Place. Title: Challenging Journey, taken in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Image: Photo and Caption by MD Tanveer Hassan Rohan/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

3rd Place: "This photograph was taken from Dhaka's airport rail station during the Eid vacation. People were returning to their village homes to spend Eid with families, and the rush at the last hour was immense. One man caught my attention: he was dangling on a train's handle with his family, trying to get inside the train. At that time, rain started and the train began to slowly move. The family had tickets to board the train, but couldn’t get to their seats. There are many people like him, who come to Dhaka for work — leaving their families and home villages—so when they get vacation, they don't want to miss the opportunity to spend time with dear ones, no matter what." — MD Tanveer Hassan Rohan