At first glance, most people would feel jealous and want to copy the backpacker pictured here floating carefree around a bale of sea turtles on Western Australia's Ningaloo Reef.
But there’s a dark side to the stunning photo, and Tourism Australia appeared hesitant to react to complaints over the image when it was posted last week, before taking it down days later.
The controversial wildlife photo posted by Tourism Australia showing a woman swimming with protected marine turtles has been removed pending investigation after receiving backlash.
There’s no question it’s a stunning image, featuring crystal blue waters and blemish-free sands, plus a sprinkling of swimming and mating marine turtles. The photo was originally shot by travel duo Daniela and Alvés of Frame Chasers and published to Instagram in November of 2022, which is mating season for turtles in Australia.
Tourism Australia posted it from its own @australia Instagram account last week. It received more than 700 comments before it was deleted from the account — a full five days after questions were first raised about wildlife welfare.
Some now say the photo could be in breach of conservation rules for turtle tourism in the World Heritage Protected site, adding that solitary marine turtles usually only congregate in this way if they are mating.
According to the WA Department of Biodiversity and Conservation’s (DBCA) turtle watchers code of conduct, getting close to mating turtles is strictly off limits. "Sea turtles are susceptible to being disturbed during mating season," DBCA Marine Program Coordinator, Exmouth, Peter Barnes told Yahoo News. "Anyone who encounters this natural phenomenon while in the water, should move away and watch from a practical distance to not disturb the animals." He said signage is in place at multiple access points along the Jurabi Coast promoting the Turtle Watching Code of Conduct.
How much harm can one photo do?
Disrupting breeding and nesting turtles, even just one time or just for one photo, is harmful to the animals because it may mean the turtles won’t finish mating, won’t come ashore, or won’t be able to properly lay their eggs.
Damage to their breeding sites, both from people entering the beach and getting too close, and pollution such as plastic and fishing lines, makes mating and laying eggs more difficult for marine turtles. All six of Australia’s protected marine turtles are classed as either endangered, or vulnerable to become endangered. Scientists say even the flash of a camera light is enough to disturb a nesting turtle and harm the egg-laying process.
Why Tourism Australia was asked to take the photo down
Before it was deleted, the photo caught the attention of photographers and wildlife advocates who asked Tourism Australia, a government agency, to reconsider the message the photo may send to tourists looking for their own up close and personal experience with the vulnerable marine species.
From my own experience as a wildlife biologist and hobby photographer, I know it’s important to maintain a safe distance from animals, especially in habitats where wild animals are known to congregate. Knowing the rules is what helps me to engage safely, responsibly, and legally with wildlife.
Without knowing the full details, this turtle photo seems to push the boundaries of the state’s well-published code of conduct for turtle tourists, 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 candidate Caitlin Smith, "the photo shows a range of male and female turtles … so I would assume it is a breeding site". She recommends against swimming up to turtles during breeding season, telling Yahoo Australia "turtles have relatively high-stress levels at this time".
Miss Smith said from the photo it doesn’t appear the turtles are distressed, but she suggested the problems with posting a photo like this is "it could easily lead others to try and replicate" it. She also noted it was a positive step that Tourism Australia had recommended using guided turtle tours in their photo caption.
It is not known if the travel pair have a permit to shoot drone photography on the Ningaloo Coast. A request for comment from Frame Chasers was not returned.
What the Instagram users said about the photo
For some, the photo damages turtle conservation efforts under the government’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), making it a surprising thing for a government body to re-share. For others, the photo was an inspiration for their travel bucket list.
"Why a government tourism agency would post a photo like this is beyond me," said one comment. "We are trusting the government to protect wildlife and then they post a photo like this."
"This is the kind of thing that will have humans completely banned from these areas. There are signs to keep away. You’re not an exception to that rule," said another. "Can we go here together", said another keen adventurer, tagging a travel mate.
How can we safely see marine turtles close up?
There are ways to safely recreate beautiful turtle tourist photos without getting too close to the protected animals, and without getting ourselves into trouble. These include keeping the recommended distance from wild animals and checking state websites to see what the laws are.
Here are a few suggestions you could consider:
Using a guided turtle tour: Tour vendors often have permits the public can't acquire, to get you as close as possible to marine turtles.
Learn about the local and state laws regarding turtle rookeries (or turtle nests).
Check for signage along the beaches before you enter the sanded areas. This helps protect animals and stops you getting a fine.
While the photo has given rise to important conversations, Yahoo does not suggest that Daniela and Alvés of Frame Chasers has done anything unlawful, and absent a response from them, does not know the exact circumstances around the photograph, whether it was staged or spontaneous, whether the guidelines applied, whether permits or permissions were required and/or obtained.
In an email to Yahoo Australia, Tourism Australia confirmed the photo has been removed whilst the matter is investigated.
Ellie Sursara is a wildlife biologist, teacher and environmentalist with an innate interest in animals, the climate, conservation, wildlife preservation and the human impact on biodiversity.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.