The powerful and poignant image shows a tiny sea horse holding tightly onto a pink, plastic cotton swab in blue-green waters around Indonesia.
California nature photographer Justin Hofman snapped the picture late last year off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain. The 33-year-old, from Monterey, Calif., said a colleague pointed out the pocket-size sea creature, which he estimated to be about 1.5 inches tall — so small, in fact, that Hofman said he almost didn't reach for his camera.
“The wind started to pick up and the sea horse started to drift. It first grabbed onto a piece of sea grass,” Hofman said Thursday in a phone interview.
Hofman started shooting.
“Eventually more and more trash and debris started to move through,” he said, adding that the critter lost its grip, then latched onto a white, wispy piece of a plastic bag. “The next thing it grabbed was a Q-Tip.”
Hofman said he wishes the picture “didn’t exist” — but it does; and now, he said, he feels responsible “to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.” He entered the photo and was a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition from the Natural History Museum in London.
“I want everybody to see it,” he added. “I want everybody to have a reaction to it.”
Hofman, an expedition leader with EYOS Expeditions, said he was wrapping up an expedition in December 2016 when he photographed the sea horse.
As he watched the creature through its journey, he said, his “blood was boiling.”
Hofman said the garbage had washed in, polluting their spot in the sea with sewage that he said he could smell and taste, and that the sea horse was searching for a raft on which to ride it out.
“I had this beautiful, little tiny creature that was so cute, and it was almost like we were brought back to reality — that this is something that happens to the sea horse day in and day out,” he said.
After the Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalists were named this week, Hofman posted the picture on Instagram, prompting emotional responses from people across social media who called it an “eye opening” and “mind-blowing shot” that illustrates a “disgusting” reality.
“It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it,” Hofman wrote beneath the image. “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? ” he said.
Hofman said that he has since received messages from people all over the world.
“Some of them feel heartbroken, some of them feel frustrated,” he said, adding some in Indonesia acknowledged they have a problem with plastic pollution.
Indonesia is the world's second-largest producer of marine pollution, dumping 3.22 million metric tons of plastic debris per year, according to data published in 2015 by Environmental Health Perspectives. The country has vowed to reduce such waste by 70 percent by the end of 2025, according to the United Nations.
Maybe, Hofman said, the photo, and others like it, can be catalysts to create change.
“We are really affecting our oceans with our negligence and our ignorance,” he said.