Photographer Justin Hofman has spoken out about the heartbreaking tale behind his finalist entry at the 2017 edition of the National History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards.
The scene went down near the Indonesian island of Sumbawa where Hofman was diving at the time. Drifting in the green-blue depths of the Indian Ocean, he spotted a tiny seahorse struggling to drag a lone cotton bud along behind it.
As cute as the image looks at first glance, it speaks volumes about the daily dramas encountered by species living in oceans ravaged by human and industrial pollution.
Posting the snap on his Instagram account, Hofman describes the backstory to the image:
"It's a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it. What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little sea horse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage.
This sea horse drifts long with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago. This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet?"
According to an Environmental Health Perspectives study published in 2015, Indonesia is placed behind China as the second largest producer of marine pollution on the planet with around 3.22 million metric tons of plastic waste being tipped into the ocean every year.
A reality that the Californian photographer came face to face with during his expedition with tour operator Eyos back in December 2016. Quoted by Eyos's Instagram account, Justin Hofman details the moment the troubling image was taken:
"We were snorkelling off the island of Sumbawa, enjoying a surprisingly healthy reef considering the proximity to a nearby town. After a short time the tide started to turn, and with it came this delightful little sea horse spotted by legendary wildlife spotter (and fellow EYOS Expedition Leader) Richard White.
At first the sea horse was on its own but then some sea grass came into the area. The tiny fish would move from one blade of sea grass to the next, almost like it was hopping along in the choppy water. Eventually larger pieces of debris drifted over the reef and with it came trash and pollutants.
The sea horse grabbed onto a wispy piece of plastic, which actually made for a better photo, for a short while before deciding on this water-logged cotton swab. It was the most important wildlife scene I've ever documented and one that I had hoped would resonate with people."
The photo's publication was followed by some hundreds of comments on social media with people voicing their shock and disgust at the state of our planet's waters.
Justin Hofman now hopes that his photo will "affect people's lives and create a change" on a bigger level. Fingers crossed.