A montage of Justin's images

Photographer Justin Hofman captured a seahorse's journey as it hopped from a natural raft to plastic debris © Justin Hofman/ SeaLegacy

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: the reality of a sewage surfer

Photographer Justin Hofman's image, Sewage surfer, is a stark reminder of the wide-reaching impact humans have on the planet, and particularly its small inhabitants.

In November 2016, on a reef off the coast of Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, a seahorse floated into range of photographer Justin Hofman's lens.

With its delicate tail grasping pieces of ocean debris, the animal hopped between rafts carried along in the ocean's currents.

But the small swimmer eventually found itself holding on to a waterlogged cotton bud - just one of the many pieces of marine plastic floating in the area.

Justin Hofman explains how his image demonstrates just how much of an effect humans have on the ocean.

A spontaneous event

When his co-worker Richard spotted a seahorse - a fish of the genus Hippocampus - floating alone near the surface of a reef in Indonesia, Justin grabbed his camera and started shooting.

'At first I was just photographing a tiny, cute seahorse bobbing around in the water. It was a delightful scene,' he says.

Sewage surfer © Justin Hofman

The photographer's poignant image, Sewage surfer, shows how plastic in the ocean can confuse wildlife © Justin Hofman/ SeaLegacy

 

'The seahorse grabbed onto a piece of seagrass. That's what they normally do, especially after they've grown up a bit and decide to settle down on a specific location rather than drift around.

'But at this point pieces of plastic had started to drift into the scene, and the next thing the fish grabbed was a wispy piece of plastic.'

The seahorse then grasped a cotton bud that had drifted in with the debris. But with the conditions under the water changing, the scene became challenging to shoot.

'We were both bouncing around so much. You could say that I got really lucky.'

Ocean reality

The difficulty in capturing the scene helped distract Justin as the conditions around him worsened.

Not only does the photo capture the seahorse with its unnatural raft, it also shows the increasing murkiness of the water that the fish and photographer were now swimming in.

'As the tide began to fill in, the currents brought in debris, sewage and trash. I could literally smell the water change,' he says.

'The wind picked up and water was splashing into my snorkel. Breathing and swallowing that water was not going to lead to anything good and we had to end our operation.

'In a perfect world, I would have stayed with the seahorse and tried to get some more shots of it.'

A seahorse holding onto seagrass

The seahorse first grasped onto a piece of seagrass, using it as a raft to float in the ocean's current © Justin Hofman/ SeaLegacy

 

Although the water was filing up with debris, Justin explains that he has experienced far worse conditions.

'There are some places in Indonesia where the garbage is truly staggering. I have seen things way, way worse than this.

'But visually I just haven't figured out a way to tell that story without just showing something disgusting and off-putting. The real power of this photo is that it shows a lot without showing too much.'

But for Justin, the problem doesn't end once the photo is taken and his expedition ends.

He says, 'For me the most depressing part of the image is what happens after I leave. Is that seahorse relegated to an entire life of drifting with a tide of trash?'

 

Indonesia is the second highest contributor of marine plastic in the world, though it has pledged to reduce by 70% the waste discharged into the ocean by 2025.

Global impact

Having witnessed this scene, Justin is mindful of what the bigger picture may be like.

'If I was lucky enough to find this scene without even looking for it, then chances are that it happens a lot more than we can even imagine.'

In his career, Justin has travelled extensively around the world, but he has not yet found a location that is free from human impact.

'I've been under the ice in Antarctica only to find harpoons from whaling vessels,' he says.

'We once sent an ROV [remotely operated vehicle] down to a deep, isolated reef off the Solomon Islands, expecting to find it teeming with life.

A seahorse holding onto wispy plastic

The incoming tide began drawing pieces of unnatural debris onto the reef. The seahorse grasped onto a wispy piece of plastic, which made for a bumpy ride. © Justin Hofman/ SeaLegacy

 

'But the very first thing we spotted was a plastic bag caught on a giant sponge, hundreds of feet underwater.

'It was a sobering moment.'

Early on in his career, Justin spent a lot of time around wild animals, photographing them for his own enjoyment. Now he uses his work to express how Earth is changing.

'At first it was the pure beauty of wildlife and wild places that inspired me to pick up the camera. Now I feel the need to share the story of how we are affecting the natural world and capture in images the changes I am seeing year to year,' he says.

Dedicated to change

From a young age, Justin had always intended to become a marine biologist.

'I have been in love with sharks and marine creatures since I was a little kid.

'But after getting my degree in marine biology and doing some field research, I knew it was not the path for me. So I pivoted into an educational role through scientific illustration and then expedition guiding.'

Photographer Justin Hofman

Justin travels all over the world photographing wildlife and nature, using his images as an outlet to express how Earth is changing © Justin Hofman

 

As for Sewage surfer, Justin hopes that those viewing it will stop and think about the emotions the image evokes.

'I want as many people as possible to see this shot and to think about what is happening to our seas.

'Some of the emotions and thoughts are uncomfortable, so it's easy to avoid the necessary conversations around marine conservation issues.

'But we need to stop being apathetic and cynical, and start working towards solutions that will keep our oceans, and each other, healthy.'

Visit the exhibition

Book tickets to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition to see the world's best nature photography.

Visit the exhibition

See the world's best nature photography in the fifty-third Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Opens 20 October.