The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a detrimental toll on the Earth’s oceans: researchers say around 30% more waste has made its way into the seas in the last year, primarily non-recyclable materials like face masks and plastic take-out containers. In Şebnem Coşkun’s underwater photograph taken in the Bosporus Strait, the ethereal, translucent bodies of jellyfish drift vertiginously in a whirlpool of plastic and debris; a diver reaches for a face mask floating ominously in the center.
Coşkun, a Turkish artist and photojournalist, is the third place winner of this year’s Nature Conservancy Photo Contest in the “People and Nature” category. The figure in her stunning image is free diver Şahika Ercümen, Turkey’s multiple world record holder and United Nations environmental advocate, captured collecting trash near the Ortaköy coastline on June 27, 2020.
About half a million tons of plastic are dumped into the Mediterranean every year — the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles entering the sea each minute, Coşkun notes in a statement about the photograph.
“Ever since I started scuba diving in 2014, the things that have impressed me the most underwater have been floating plastic and waste. I thought there was a world underwater that would fascinate me, but this sight shocked me,” she told Hyperallergic. “Then I started working on marine litter. I was working as a photojournalist at Anadolu Agency and I started taking pictures to show the other side of this world.”
“After I started to see the waste, I stopped buying the water sold in plastic bottles. If my encounter with waste has changed me so much, I think it can change everyone,” Coşkun added.
The use of face coverings and other personal protective equipment (PPE) has proven essential to help curb the spread of coronavirus, but these items must be carefully discarded to avoid harming marine wildlife and ecosystems. Encouraging reusable masks and implementing policies to stop littering can help, according to the conservation organization OceansAsia.
The Nature Conservancy’s 2021 competition received more than 100,000 entries from 158 countries this year. Buddhilini de Soyza took the first prize in the “Wildlife” category with her photograph of four cheetahs crossing the turbulent Talek River in Kenya during a period of unseasonal torrential flooding.
While images like Coşkun’s and de Soyza’s raise awareness of urgent environmental challenges by capturing a grim reality, others are joyful celebrations of the natural world’s unique beauty and playfulness. Anup Shah’s mesmerizing shot of a Western lowland gorilla female caught in a swarm of butterflies in the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve of the Central African Republic, titled “Malui” (2011), won this year’s Grand Prize — a set of camera equipment valued at $4,000.
Some of the most technically and aesthetically striking compositions can be found in the “Landscape” category. Jassen Todorov, a violinist, pilot, and 2018 National Geographic Photographer of the Year, photographed the salt ponds of the San Francisco Bay from his plane. The bird’s-eye view of the golden and reddish-hued natural forms, which produce over 500,000 tons of sea salt each year, are evocative of Richard Diebenkorn’s tranquil aerial abstractions.
Other highlights include Daniel De Granville Manço’s image of a Pantanal alligator carcass camouflaged against the cracked soil of the drought-afflicted Mato Grosso state in Brazil, and “People and Nature” first place winner Alain Schroeder’s shot of a baby orangutan being prepped for surgery.
View all the winning photographs of the 2021 Nature Conservancy Photo Contest here. If you need convincing, research shows that looking at pictures of nature for just five minutes can have a calming effect on the brain — it’s like a mini escape from the dozens of tabs and crowded desktop of your computer screen.