From the heartbreaking to the awe-inspiring, the winning images in the Natural History Museum's annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition rarely disappoint. This year's contest was won by Laurent Ballesta who spent more than 3,000 hours beneath the waves to snap a remarkable image of mating groupers.

Creation, by Laurent Ballesta, France
Winner, underwater
A trio of groupers leaves a milky cloud of eggs and sperm. For five years, Ballesta and his team returned to this lagoon, diving day and night to see the annual spawning of camouflage groupers (Epinephelus polyphekadion). They were joined after dark by reef sharks hunting the fish.
© Laurent Ballesta/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"This year's Grand Title winner reveals a hidden underwater world, a fleeting moment of fascinating animal behaviour that very few have witnessed," said Doug Gurr, the museum's director, in a statement. "In what could be a pivotal year for the planet, with vital discussions taking place at COP15 and COP26, Laurent Ballesta's Creation is a compelling reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not address humanity's impact on our planet."

The contest, recognised as the world's longest-running and most renowned nature photography competition, drew over 50,000 entries from 95 countries this year, making things difficult for the expert judging panel.

Ten-year-old photographer Vidyun R Hebbar of Bengaluru, India scooped up the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year accolade for his image of a tent spider upside down in a web, illuminated by the bright colors of a passing tuk-tuk. "The jury loved this photo from the beginning of the judging process," Natalie Cooper, a jury member and National History Museum researcher, said in a statement. "It is a great reminder to look more closely at the small animals we live with every day, and to take your camera with you everywhere. You never know where that award-winning image is going to come from."

Dome home, by Vidyun R Hebbar, India
Winner, 10 years and under
Vidyun watched a tent spider as a tuk-tuk passed by. Exploring his local theme park, he found an occupied spiderweb in a gap in a wall. A passing tuk-tuk provided a backdrop of rainbow colors to set off the spider's silk creation. Tent spiders are tiny; this one had legs spanning less than 15 millimeters.
Vidyun R Hebbar/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The winning images, along with 98 others from the competition, are currently on display at London's Natural History Museum. In the coming months the exhibit will travel to venues in the UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany and the US.

Here's a look at some of the commended photos:

High-flying jay, by Lasse Kurkela, Finland
Winner, 15-17 years
Kurkela watched a Siberian jay fly to the top of a spruce tree to stash its food. Kurkela wanted to give a sense of scale in his photograph of the Siberian jay, tiny among the old-growth spruce-dominated forest. 
Lasse Kurkela/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The intimate touch, by Shane Kalyn, Canada
Winner, Behaviour: birds
Kalyn watched a raven courtship display. It was midwinter, the start of the ravens' breeding season. Kalyn lay on the frozen ground and used the muted light to capture the ravens' iridescent plumage against the contrasting snow to reveal this intimate moment when their thick black bills came together.
Shane Kalyn/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Reflection, by Majed Ali, Kuwait
Winner, Animal portraits
Ali glimpsed the moment a mountain gorilla closed its eyes in the rain. Ali trekked for four hours to meet Kibande, an almost-40-year-old mountain gorilla. "The more we climbed, the hotter and more humid it got," Ali recalls. As cooling rain began to fall, Kibande remained in the open, seeming to enjoy the shower.
Majed Ali/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Nursery meltdown, by Jennifer Hayes, US
Winner, Oceans - The Bigger Picture
Hayes recorded harp seals, seal pups and the blood of birth against melting sea ice. Following a storm, it took hours of searching by helicopter to find this fractured sea ice used as a birthing platform by harp seals. "It was a pulse of life that took your breath away," says Hayes.
Jennifer Hayes/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Head to head, by Stefano Unterthiner, Italy
Winner, Behaviour: mammals
Unterthiner watched two Svalbard reindeer battle for control of a harem. Unterthiner followed these reindeer during the rutting season. Watching the fight, he felt immersed in "the smell, the noise, the fatigue and the pain." The reindeer clashed antlers until the dominant male (left) chased its rival away.
Stefano Unterthiner/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Where the giant newts breed, by João Rodrigues, Portugal
Winner, Behaviour: amphibians and reptiles
Rodrigues was surprised by a pair of courting sharp-ribbed salamanders in this flooded forest. It was Rodrigues' first chance in five years to dive into this lake, as it emerges only in winters of exceptionally heavy rainfall, when underground rivers overflow.
João Rodrigues/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Face-off, from the "Cichlids of Planet Tanganyika" portfolio by Angel Fitor, Spain
Winner, Portfolio Award
Fitor provides an intimate look at cichlid fishes in Africa's Lake Tanganyika. Two male cichlid fish fight jaw to jaw over a snail shell. Inside the half-buried shell is a female ready to lay eggs. For three weeks, Fitor monitored the lake bed looking for such disputes.
Angel M. Fitor/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Cool time, from "Land time for sea bears" portfolio, by Martin Gregus, Canada/Slovakia
Winner, Rising Star Portfolio Award
Gregus shows polar bears in a different light as they come ashore in summer. On a hot summer's day, two female polar bears took to the shallow intertidal waters to cool off and play. Gregus used a drone to capture this moment.
Martin Gregus/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Elephant in the room, by Adam Oswell, Australia
Winner, Photojournalism
Oswell draws attention to zoo visitors watching a young elephant perform underwater.
Adam Oswell/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Road to ruin, by Javier Lafuente, Spain
Winner, Wetlands - The Bigger Picture
Lafuente shows the stark, straight line of a road slicing through the curves of a wetland landscape. By maneuvering his drone and inclining the camera, Lafuente dealt with the challenges of sunlight reflected by the water and ever-changing light conditions.
Javier Lafuente/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Bedazzled, by Alex Mustard, UK
Winner, Natural Artistry
Mustard found a ghost pipefish hiding among the arms of a feather star. Mustard had always wanted to capture such an image of a juvenile ghost pipefish but usually found only darker adults on matching feather stars.
Alex Mustard/2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Header image: Martin Gregus / Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021