Pro surfer Jamie O'Brien created a firestorm of controversy and condemnation from residents of Hawaii, environmentalists and animal activists after a photograph was posted online showing the surfer 'riding' an endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.
The controversy began brewing last week, after the picture was posted on the Facebook wall of Hawaii News Now. That spawned a number of comments about O'Brien harassing the turtle, which is a protected species under federal and state law.
O'Brien posted on his blog that he was trying to draw attention to a herpes-type virus called Fibropapillomatosis, that is affecting the sea turtles around the world. But this excuse isn't reason enough for the photo-op that resulted in the offending picture for most commenter's on the web.
Native Hawaiian's consider the creature, known as a 'honu', as an ancestral spirit and are outraged the surfer 'molested' the turtle. One resident of Hawaii posted a video on YouTube that has received thousands of views showing the picture, which was taken by a professional photographer.
SICAL808 says his anger is more then outrage. He said as a professional surfer O'Brien should have known better. He asks, "What's the matter with you Jamie," and wonders if he has any common sense. He reminds the surfer that he 'is lucky' to be able to share the ocean with the honu and that says what he was doing to harass the turtle was wrong.
Sharon Bull posted in response to the photo, "This is totally outrageous and both he and the photographer should be punished/fined to the full extent of the law. He is no stranger to the Islands, so he knows is is breaking both state and federal law in molesting this turtle. A total jerk."
The general consensus on Facebook is that the Green Sea Turtle, known to approach swimmers and surfers in the Hawaiian Islands, are to be admired from a distance and that humans should remove themselves from the water when they spot the wondrous turtle.
Green sea turtle swimming over coral reefs in Kona.
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Hawaii's Division of Aquatic Resources said: "there is no law specifying the minimum distance people can approach a marine mammal or sea turtle. However, getting close to these animals may constitute a federal or state violation if the animal is disturbed or if your action has the potential to disturb its natural behavioral patterns." They recommend "that everyone stay at least 150 feet from all marine mammals and sea turtles."
Hawaii News Now reports Anne Jacobs Harrison said about the spread of the photo: "I say share it, with a detailed explanation of why it's wrong. Lots of mainlanders aren't aware of the law, the penalty, or the reason behind the law, so it may reach some folks who otherwise wouldn't know."
Penalties and fines for feeding, petting, riding, or otherwise harassing the sea turtle can be as high as $13,200. The photograph, which is believed to be taken off Oahu's North Shore, is being investigated by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Endangered Species Branch.