Photo by Justin Hofman

When photographer Justin Hofman snapped this photo while snorkeling off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 2016, he couldn't have guessed the environmental impact the snapshot would have. A year later, the photograph is a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, and has been dubbed "the poster child for today’s marine trash crisis."

Hofman is based out of California, but he travels all over the world leading wildlife expeditions. This photo was captured on one-such expedition in Indonesia.

He was gleefully watching this seahorse bounce from natural object to natural object, hitching rides on the current, when something changed. Here's a piece of the official image caption:

"As the tide started to come in, the mood changed. The water contained more and more decidedly unnatural objects—mainly bits of plastic—and a film of sewage sludge covered the surface. The seahorse let go of a piece of seagrass and seized a long, wispy piece of clear plastic. As a brisk wind at the surface picked up, making conditions bumpier, the seahorse took advantage of something that offered a more stable raft: a waterlogged plastic cotton swab."

When Hofman shared the photo on his Instagram account last week, it received over 17K likes and 1,100 comments, but it's a photo he wishes didn't exist. "This sea horse drifts along with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago," he wrote on IG. "This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans."

A post shared by Justin Hofman (@justinhofman) on

As for capturing the photo itself, we asked Hofman if he would like to share anything with our audience of photographers directly. This is what he had to say:

The thing I would really like to tell photographers is to a) Listen to your gut and b) Don't worry so much about gear.

If you look at this encounter, on paper it doesn't really make that much sense: I captured a photo of a 1 inch sea horse using a 35mm lens (16-35mm). Most people, if you had told them of the scenario would say to bring a macro lens. But I never have a macro lens on my camera. I am always afraid that a whale will swim by while I have a 105mm on, which would make it worthless. If I am unsure or just goofing off, I will always bring with me the most flexible lens I can. This ensures that whatever comes by, I have given myself the best opportunity possible to capture the moment.

Of course there will always be sacrifices, but the flexibility is key. If I had had a macro lens, I can 100% assure you that this photo would not have been possible because we were both bobbing around too much to make a sharp macro shot possible. Even with a 35mm, I only have a handful of photos that are actually in focus.

And in case you are curious about gear, he also shared that the photo was taken with an A7R II and Sony 16-35mm F4 lens in a Nauticam housing with a Sea and Sea 240mm dome and two Sea and Sea ys-d1 strobes.

To see more of Hofman's work, be sure to visit his website or give his account a follow on Instagram. And if you'd like to learn more about ocean conservation, Justin suggests you visit SeaLegacy.org.


Photo by Justin Hofman and used with permission.