The best photography reminds us of the supreme beauty of our natural world, the pain we inflict on it, why we must protect our planet, and what it means to be human. The winners and finalists of this year’s Smithsonian Photo Contest do all of that (and more), depicting scenes of playful whales, the humbling aftermath of wildfires, a sneaky Arctic fox stealing a hunk of meat bigger than its own head, and a newborn baby on his father’s lap. You can see the complete collection of the winning photos here. Scroll down to see a sampling of our favorites.
Playing With the Wave
This baby humpback whale, captured on a Nikon D810, playfully rolls in the waves. Adult humpbacks grow to be as large as school buses, and they swim in every ocean in the world. This one frolicked in the waters of Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom in the South Pacific.
Icelandic landscapes are so uniquely breathtaking that filmmakers often use them to depict other worlds, as in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Interstellar, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. The Ófærufoss waterfall, pictured above, hasn’t been in a film yet, but it certainly could be. It’s a part of the Nyrðri-Ófæra river, also known as the “impassable northern river,” which flows into Eldgjá, or the “Canyon of Fire.”
Walrus Beach Masters
This male and female pair of walruses emerge onto a beach on the coast of Svalbard, Norway. A fjord melts behind them, which photographer Roie Galitz captured using a Nikon D800.
The Painful Aftermath
This image, photographed from a plane, shows the painful aftermath of fires that tore through Santa Rosa, California in 2017. Thousands of people lost their homes in the disaster.
This red-fronted lemur was captured by photographer Anuroop Krishnan on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. This species is native to Madagascar, like all extant lemurs, and is listed as vulnerable due to slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging.
Newest Cowboy in Town
In the grand prize-winning photo of the 16th annual Smithsonian Photo Contest, newborn baby Jestin sits in his father’s lap, holding a teeny cowboy hat, in their Cleveland, Mississippi home.
Flying at the Infamous Mara River Crossing
For this incredible photo of wildebeest crossing the Mara River in Tanzania, the photographers arrived to the scene before sunrise to get the light just right.
Photographer Patrizia Ricci was in Canada’s Wapusk National Park looking for polar bear cubs, but instead happened upon this hungry fox. Arctic foxes are scavengers and known to steal from other predators, which could be why this one is carrying a big hunk of caribou meat.
This whimsical shot won the Reader’s Choice Award this year, and depicts a lava lizard perched upon the head of a marine iguana on Fernandina Island in the Galápagos.
This photo, winner of the Travel category, captures a woman walking through a spring snow squall in Moscow.