It’s getting harder to tell stories about nature without noticing humanity’s role in disrupting it. The finalists of the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of Year competition were announced Sept. 12, and one of the images contains a stark sign of manmade pollution.
Photographer Justin Hofman’s underwater image reveals a tiny seahorse swimming through the open sea near Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. In its grasp, as if about to lead a marching band through a coral reef, is a bright pink cotton swab.
A note from the contest accompanying the photo recounts how this poignant juxtaposition came together:
Seahorses hitch rides on the currents by grabbing floating objects such as seaweed with their delicate prehensile tails. Justin watched with delight as this tiny estuary seahorse ‘almost hopped’ from one bit of bouncing natural debris to the next, bobbing around near the surface on a reef near Sumbawa Island, Indonesia.
But 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, all sluicing towards the shore. 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 cottonbud.
Indonesia is one of the world’s worst plastic polluters. A 2015 report found that Indonesia ranks second in the world for dumping garbage into the Ocean. (China dumps the most.) It has tentatively begun to address those issues, including a pledge of a billion dollars to reduce its marine pollution footprint over the next eight years, reports the Guardian.