At first glance, most people would feel jealous and want to copy the backpacker pictured here carelessly floating around a ball of sea turtles on Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef.
But there is a dark side to the stunning photo, and Tourism Australia appeared hesitant to respond to complaints about the image when it was posted last week before taking it down days later.
A controversial wildlife photo posted by Tourism Australia showing a woman swimming with protected sea turtles has been removed pending an investigation after receiving backlash.
There’s no doubt it’s a stunning image, featuring crystal blue waters and spotless sand, plus splashes of swimming and mating sea turtles. The photo was originally taken by travel duo Daniela and Alves of Frame Chasers and posted on Instagram in November 2022, when it’s Australian turtle mating season.
Tourism Australia posted it from its own @australia Instagram account last week. It received more than 700 comments before being deleted from the account – a full five days after questions were first raised about the welfare of the wildlife.
Some now say the photo may be in violation of turtle tourism conservation rules at the protected World Heritage site, adding that solitary sea turtles usually gather like this only if they are mating.
According to the WA Department of Biodiversity and Conservation (DBCA) Turtle Watcher Code of Conduct, approaching mating turtles is strictly prohibited. “Sea turtles are susceptible to disturbance during the mating season,” Peter Barnes, DBCA’s marine program coordinator, Exmouth, told Yahoo News. “Anyone who encounters this natural phenomenon while in the water should move away and observe from a practical distance so as not to disturb the animals.” He said signs had been posted at multiple access points along Jurabi’s coast, promoting the Turtle Watch Code of Conduct.
How much damage can a photo do?
Interrupting turtle breeding and nesting, even just once or for just one photo, is harmful to the animals because it may mean the turtles will not complete mating, come ashore, or be unable to properly lay their eggs.
Damage to their breeding grounds, both from people entering the beach and getting too close, and pollution such as plastic and fishing line, makes mating and egg-laying more difficult for sea turtles. All six protected sea turtles in Australia are classified as endangered or vulnerable to becoming endangered. Scientists say that even the flash of a camera is enough to disturb a nesting turtle and harm the egg-laying process.
Why Tourism Australia was asked to take down the photo
Before it was deleted, the photo caught the attention of photographers and wildlife conservationists, who asked Tourism Australia, a government agency, to review the message the photo might send to tourists seeking their own up-close experience with the vulnerable marine species.
I know from my own experience as a biologist and amateur photographer that it is important to keep a safe distance from animals, especially in habitats where wildlife is known to congregate. Knowing the rules is what helps me deal with wildlife safely, responsibly and legally.
Without knowing the full details, this photo of a turtle appears to be pushing the boundaries of the well-publicized turtle tourist code of conduct, as well as Tourism Australia’s own commitment to responsible travel.
What a wildlife expert thinks about the photo
According to USC marine scientist and PhD student Caitlin Smith, “the photo shows a set of male and female turtles … so I’m guessing it’s a breeding ground.” She recommends against swimming next to turtles during the breeding season, telling Yahoo Australia that “turtles have relatively high stress levels at this time.”
Miss Smith said it did not appear from the photo that the turtles were disturbed, but suggested the problems with posting a photo like this was that it “could easily lead to others trying to replicate it”. She also noted that it was a positive step that Tourism Australia recommended the use of guided turtle tours in their photo caption.
It is not known if the traveling couple had permission to take drone photography on the Ningaloo coast. A request for comment from Frame Chasers was not returned.
What Instagram users said about the photo
For some, the photo harms turtle conservation efforts under the government’s Environment and Biodiversity Protection Act (EPBC Act), making the re-sharing by a government agency surprising. For others, the photo was the inspiration for their travel bucket list.
“Why a government tourism agency would publish a photo like this is beyond me,” read one comment. “We trust the government to protect wildlife and then they post a picture like this.”
“This is something that will get people banned from these areas altogether. There are signs to watch out for. You are no exception to that rule,” said another. “Can we go here together,” said another keen adventurer, tagging a companion.
How can we safely see sea turtles up close?
There are ways to safely recreate beautiful turtle tourist photos without getting too close to the protected animals and without causing trouble. These include keeping the recommended distance from wildlife and checking state websites to see what the laws are.
Here are some suggestions for you to consider:
Using a Guided Turtle Tour: Tour sellers often have permits that the public can’t get to get you as close as possible to the sea turtles.
Learn more about local and state laws regarding turtle nests (or turtle nests).
Check for signs on the beaches before entering the sandy areas. This helps protect the animals and stops you getting fined.
Although the photo has sparked important conversations, Yahoo does not suggest that Daniela and Alves of Frame Chasers did anything illegal and, in the absence of a response from them, does not know the exact circumstances surrounding the photo, whether it was staged or spontaneous, whether the guidelines were implemented , whether permits or authorizations were required and/or obtained.
In an email to Yahoo Australia, Tourism Australia confirmed the photo had been removed while the matter was investigated.
Eli Sursara is a wildlife biologist, teacher and conservationist with an innate interest in animals, climate, conservation, wildlife conservation and the human impact on biodiversity.
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