Interview: Viral Video Shooter Rich Horner

Now, while where we’re all stuck at home in some way or another, we’re taking a bit of time to...

Now, while where we’re all stuck at home in some way or another, we’re taking a bit of time to celebrate the amazing people within the diving industry, starting with Rich Horner, who’s most famous for shooting a video of plastic-filled waters in Nusa Lembongan. Here we’ll discuss what it’s like to become a viral video star and how he views COVID-19’s impact on the environment.

What got you into diving in the first place?

I went backpacking in Australia and just did what all backpackers do in Australia. Plus, a couple of friends at home were divers and I thought it looked cool.

You’re known internationally for shooting this video. How did that come about and how did you feel shooting it?

Yeah, my rubbish dive … my mates have now christened me the #rubbishdiver. That day, I’d jumped on my mate’s dive boat to try and get some cool manta videos with my GoPro. When we pulled into the bay at Manta Point, we could all see this huge slick of plastic, branches, leaves and jellies floating right over where the cleaning station is. Underwater it was mad and much, much bigger than anyone had ever seen. But we rolled in anyway, to go and see if the mantas were there. After all, the plastic floats, and the mantas are deeper here, cleaning. I also knew that I should document this plastic slick, as our friends on the island were doing research projects on the mantas and the microplastics, so they’d very much want to know about it.

When we got down there and swam over to the cleaning station rock, we saw an absolutely surreal sight. The top of rock was covered in a perfectly mixed cloud of plastic, evenly suspended from the surface to the top of the rock, 13 feet (4 m deep). It didn’t look real. This happened due to the swell interacting with the suddenly shallow rock causing the plastic, which is only very slightly buoyant, to hang lower in the water column. Away from the rock we found the rest of the slick, snaking off in a line. I swam along under this, following its path for ages — only part of this swim is in my video. That dive, we saw three or four mantas.

How did I feel seeing it? It was a mixture. Obviously, shock, as no one had ever seen a slick like this. Also, a feeling of disappointment, as seeing plastic in our ocean isn’t uncommon during the wet season here. Usually we’d only see it on the feeding site, as it gets pushed by the same currents and winds as the plankton that the mantas feed on. So, we’re really quite weary of seeing it all the time.  But also, for me, it was fascinating to see, as with anything that floats in the ocean for an extended amount of time, it attracts a lot of its own life, becoming its own floating ecosystem. I didn’t find any sargassum frogfish, but there probably were a few in there.

What’s changed in your life since that video went viral?

Technically I’m a star of a viral video, but luckily, I was in my mask and hood that day, so I’m still anonymous to a large extent. But very soon after I posted my video on Facebook — to show my dive friends — it started getting shared a lot and going viral in only a few hours. After reading the comments from strangers, I quickly realized I had to explain to people what they were seeing and provide more detail.

So, I edited the description of the post several times, covering the frequently asked questions and what people were getting wrong, like explaining that it was a freak occurrence and that Manta Bay doesn’t look like that normally.

The video was shared thousands of times, without my detailed description, so there was no chance that people could fully understand what they were seeing. Instead, they just saw this crazy apocalyptic video of what it seemed like the ocean looks like now. Realizing this, I knew I had to explain the details of the video as much as I could, so I accepted requests to do the TV interviews with the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Chinese and of course, the Indonesian channels.

Now, more than two years later, I still get a few usage requests per month for the video. A lot of those initial commercial users paid to use the clip, generating a few thousand dollars, which I’ve donated to the mantas and the microplastics research done out here. I give teachers, students, researchers, activist, campaigners, charities, and documentarians the footage for free.

What advice would you give to divers looking to help protect the ocean?

If you see anything like this, document it as fully and as best you can then pass it along to researchers and scientists that study these issues. Data is vital here. Scuba diving itself has done so much to help the oceans and reefs, just by allowing so many pairs of eyes to see what’s under the surface. Seeing the absolute beauty and also the horrific damage humans have done is impactful. So, showing this to all those who haven’t been diving is very important.

How does lockdown look on Nusa Lembongan?

For the islanders, it’s been pretty tough. Tourism dried up pretty quickly, and now all boats have halted, apart from goods and supplies. Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Ceningan just over the Yellow Bridge, and more recently, the much bigger Nusa Penida, had become mostly reliant on tourism. Some of the dive businesses have been able to keep paying some staff wages I gather, but it looks likely that tourism will take longer to recover from this. One positive thing is that more of the locals have started seaweed farming again. It had died off a lot in the recent years, as too many middlemen were taking all the money, but I gather they have protected prices now and more plots are being populated in the very productive channel between Lembongan and Ceningan.

I haven’t dived since February, and might not get out for a while, I guess. A few people did manage to get out a few weeks ago to check the reefs and coral-restoration projects. Shore diving is mostly impossible here on Lembongan. We’re all just chilling out under lockdown for now. One of the small concerns is that without all the eyes underwater, there’s the chance that some of the key reef species might be targeted by people that don’t know, or don’t care about the fragility of the reefs. We’re hoping no one gets too hungry here.

What’s next for you after we’re all allowed out again?

After COVID-19 … it’s a mystery. But I’d like to continue helping out here with the research, the coral restoration and also with mapping of the reefs. The new techniques of photogrammetry are amazing — and fairly easy to do — with a bit of swimming. So hopefully we can make some nice maps for everyone. For now, I think I’ll be staying here in Bali, as it’s genuinely a lovely place to be, lovely people, lovely reefs, lovely divers coming to visit… and because of the manta rays. Probably mostly the manta rays.