A lone polar bear stares out from a drifting ice sheet, a colony of penguins race across an Antarctic sea, and a gazelle calf runs for its life from four eager cheetah cubs -- this is merely a sampling of the best images submitted for the 2012 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

The winners were announced on Wednesday night at a gala at the Natural History Museum in London where an exhibition featuring 100 of the best photos will open this Friday. The annual exhibit will then travel throughout the UK and around the world in the coming months.

The highly anticipated competition is now in its 48th year, and it attracted more than 48,000 entries from 98 countries. Of those vying for the top prize, it was Canadian Paul Nicklen’s “Bubble-jetting emperors” that ultimately won the judges over.

To capture the chaotic scene, the National Geographic magazine photographer waited motionless on the edge of Antarctica’s Ross Sea for a colony of penguins to emerge.

“It was a fantastic sight. Hundreds launched themselves out of the water and on to the ice above me,” Nicklen explained. “It was a moment that I felt incredibly fortunate to witness and one I’ll never forget.”

Competition judge and esteemed underwater photographer David Doubilet explained that the image “draws us in for a glimpse of the emperor penguin’s private world at the end of the Earth.”

“I love this image, because it shows perfectly organized, infinite chaos,” he said. “My eyes linger over it trying to absorb everything that’s going on here.”

The judges named UK teenager Owen Hearn the Veolia Environnement Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image, “Flight paths,” featuring a red kite bird mirroring a distant plane.

Both images were selected from 18 individual category winners depicting nature at its most supreme, including animal behavior, landscapes and environments. Amateurs and professionals alike were invited to submit photos, and all were judged by a panel of industry-recognized professionals for their creativity, artistry and technical complexity.

Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide. Visit www.nhm.ac.uk/wildphoto for more information.