Justin Hofman, a California-based nature photographer, was marveling at the beauty of a reef near Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, when a sight he wished he’d unsee came before his camera lens. It was at that moment that the 33-year-old snapped this depressing photo of a tiny seahorse, no bigger than a shot glass, hopping a ride on a pink cotton swab.

A small seahorse holds a cotton swab tightly in Indonesia. Credit: Justin Hofman via Natural History Museum.

A small seahorse holds a cotton swab tightly in Indonesia. Credit: Justin Hofman via Natural History Museum.

Hofman says he wishes the picture ‘didn’t exist’ but since it does the photographer thought he might as well share it with the world. The emotional shot impressed a lot of people, becoming one of the finalists of the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of Year. A note on the contest entry’s page has the backstory.

“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.”

The powerful photo serves as an allegory for the rather wretched state of plastic pollution and debris humans have forced upon oceans. The waters around Indonesia and its many islands are among the most polluted in the world. Local government has taken note, pledging $1 billion over eight years for cleanup. The trash keeps piling up, though, putting into question the efficacy of such measures absent complementary policy that might curb pollution at the source. One recent study estimates there are at least 5.25 trillion pieces, weighing an estimated 269,000 tonnes in total, contaminating the world’s oceans. In 2010 alone, 8 million metric tons of plastic were dumped by humans into the waters.

plastic pollution chart