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The stunning underwater picture this photographer wishes did not exist

By Lindsey BeverSeptember 15 at 7:00 AM


Water Azure Liquid Terrestrial plant Twig

A small sea horse grabs onto garbage in Indonesia. (Justin Hofman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

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."

[Before his tragic death, nature photographer shot 'iconic' images of climate change's threat]

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.

Justin Hofman (Justin Hofman)
Eye Organ Beard Human Eyelash

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.

Read more:

The fanged, faceless sea creature that washed ashore during Harvey has been identified

Strange 'sea pickles' keep washing ashore in the Pacific Northwest - and scientists are baffled

Lindsey Bever is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

Follow @lindseybever

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Disgusting what has been and is still being dumped in the oceans. I hope there's an international effort to put and end to this practice. I also detest river slobs who are too lazy to bring back trash for proper burial.

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Eye opening? Walk the beaches of Belize, and the amount of plastic water bottles and floating garbage will amaze you. Not in front of the resorts, but the private homes. That they allow the importation of plastic water bottles, and that those same bottles are some of our first aid item sent to disaster areas is problematic.

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"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.
Just remind yourself of where we were not that long ago here in the US. Tacoma's Commencement Bay was a trash, shit hole when I first saw it in the early 80's. When we left some 30 years later, the water under the Katie Downs restaurant bridge was near clear as gin. Change for the good can and does happen...and it's best sold in moderation and without excessive hype and ulterior motives.

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