Witnessing all the wonders of our planet can be a lifelong challenge, but thanks to the millions of photographers out there (whether they're professionals, amateurs or even just casual iPhoneographers), we're able to experience the world like never before.

Whale Whisperers
(Photo: Anuar Patjane Floriuk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest)

National Geographic, in particular, has played a major role in bringing extraordinary travel photos to the forefront — giving viewers a hint of the majesty of our planet.

After sifting through nearly 18,000 submissions, judges for the 2015 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest just announced the winners for this year's edition of the prestigious competition. Prompted to submit their images into one of several categories (Travel Portraits, Outdoor Scenes, Sense of Place and Spontaneous Moments), photographers outdid themselves this year.

The winning photo (above), captured by Anuar Patjane Floriuk and titled "Whale Whisperers," depicts an awe-inspiring scene in which a humpback whale and her newborn calf glide through the water off the western coast of Roca Partida in Mexico's Revillagigedo Islands.

"The photo wasn’t planned," Floriuk says. "I was taking photos near the head of the whale, and all of a sudden she began to swim toward the rest of the diving team. The divers gave the whale and her calf space, and I just clicked at the moment when the flow and composition seemed right."

Of course, this photo is more than just a beautiful underwater scene — it's also a statement on the increasing fragility of this ecosystem and the role humans play in its destruction or conservation.

"This is an outstanding and unique place full of pelagic life," Floriuk writes, "so we need to accelerate the incorporation of the islands into UNESCO as [a] natural heritage site in order to increase the protection of the islands against the prevailing illegal fishing corporations and big-game fishing."

As the grand prize winner, Floriuk was awarded with an eight-day National Geographic photo expedition to Costa Rica and the Panama Canal for two.

Continue below to see the photos that won second and third place, as well as a selection of the images acknowledged with a merit award. All captions are provided by the respective photographers.


Second place: Gravel Workmen

"[This] gravel-crush working place remains full of dust and sand. Three gravel workmen are looking through the window glass at their working place. Chittagong, Bangladesh."


Third place: Camel Ardah

"Camel Ardah, as it called in Oman, is one of the traditional styles of camel racing … between two camels controlled by expert men. The faster camel is the loser … so they must be running [at] the same speed level in the same track. The main purpose of Ardah is to show the beauty and strength of the Arabian camels and the riders' skills. Ardah [is] considered one of the most risky situations, since always the camels reactions are unpredictable [and] it may get wild and jump [toward the] audience."


Merit: A Night at Deadvlei

"The night before returning to Windhoek, we spent several hours at Deadveli. The moon was bright enough to illuminate the sand dunes in the distance, but the skies were still dark enough to clearly see the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds. Deadveli means 'dead marsh.' The camelthorn trees are believed to be about 900 years old but have not decomposed because the environment is so dry."


Merit: Catching a Duck

"Two boys are trying to catch a duck at the stream of the waterfall. Nong Khai Province, Thailand."


Merit: Romania, Land of Fairy Tales

"White frost over Pestera village."

Merit: Sauna in the Sky

"A sauna at 2,800 meters high in the heart of Dolomites. Monte Lagazuoi, Cortina, eastern Italian Alps."


Merit: Kushti, Indian Wrestling

"Kushti is the traditional form of Indian wrestling. Wearing only a well-adjusted loincloth (langot), wrestlers (pelwhans) enter a pit made of clay, often mixed with salt, lemon, and ghee (clarified butter). At the end of a workout, wrestlers rest against the walls of the arena, covering their heads and bodies with earth to soak up any perspiration and avoid catching cold. This relaxation ceremony is completed with massages to soothe tired muscles and demonstrate mutual respect."


Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.