An engineer quit her job to pursue her dream—and became National Geographic’s Travel Photographer of the Year

This calf was always with mom. A curious calf sometimes came to us.
This calf was always with mom. A curious calf sometimes came to us.
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The winning photo in National Geographic’s 2018 Travel Photographer of the Year is a quiet shot of a humpback whale calf, swimming in the deep blue waters of Japan’s Kumejima island.

It was shot by a woman who, up until last year, worked as a semiconductor engineer. In her previous career, Reiko Takahashi only managed to develop her passion for underwater photography on a handful of trips each year. In an interview with National Geographic, the Japanese photographer explained what inspired her to pursue undersea photography full time and how that brought her to the winning image.

A humpback whale calf.
A humpback whale calf.
Image: Reiko Takahashi/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year


“I felt that life was finite and I wanted to use time for what I really love,” she told National Geographic. For her, that meant meticulously studying behaviors of ocean life, and spending what time she could to document them in their natural habitat. Her renewed dedication to photography paid off in February 2018, when she came across a mother whale and calf while snorkeling.

While some nature photographers may stalk a creature for days, even weeks to get their shot, Takahasi was lucky enough to get this simple moment on the first day of a trip.

She described the moments leading up to her shot:

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.

“I think being underwater is similar to climbing Everest—it is not a place where we can easily go. For me, it is a special and sacred place,” she said.