HALEIWA (HawaiiNewsNow) – Pictures of tourists straddling and touching Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, which are a threatened species, have prompted a reminder that disturbing them in any way is a violation of both state and federal law.
The pictures were taken at Laniakea Beach on Tuesday, March 6. Usually an all volunteer group, Malama na Honu, has people stationed at the beach to help safeguard the turtles and educate the public about the turtles. But Tuesday the weather was so foul the volunteers were asked to stay home. Their absence left the turtles vulnerable.
"It really bothers me. I couldn't sleep last night," said Agnes Bryant, a turtle lover who took the pictures.
"I saw these people - they are screaming like, 'Oh my god I touched the turtles.' I stopped by and start taking pictures of them and I told them that, 'You know guys that you can get fined for touching the turtles. It's by law.' And they said, 'Oh really. We don't know about it and we don't care,'" Bryant told Hawaii News Now.
We showed the pictures to Irene Kelly, a Fishery Biologist and Sea Turtle Recovery Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"They shouldn't be doing it. It's disrespectful," Kelly said.
The law does not specify exactly how far people must stay from sea turtles, and while the conduct of the people in the pictures may look like harmless fun, they were breaking the law.
"Sea turtles are protected under state and federal law, and they are protected from harm, from disturbance, from pursuit and capture or any activities that may engage in those kinds of activities so protection basically means hands off," Kelly said.
"When you are observing an animal from a distance and they lift their head, they look a little agitated, they start to change how they are acting, moving in anyway, then you have most likely disturbed that animal and you want to back away," Kelly added.
Prosecution is rare, but mess with a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle and you can face fines that run into the thousands of dollars.
In a way the volunteers at Laniakea Beach are protecting the turtles and curious onlookers by setting up a perimeter around turtles.
"I think most people that I see at least up here, they are just excited about seeing the turtles. It's just a big thrill for them to see the turtles and they just get carried away," said Alan Renninger, a volunteer with Malama na Honu who was watching over the turtles at the beach Wednesday.
The folks at NOAA encourage people to contact them if they see anyone getting too close or harassing the turtles. The NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline is (808) 541-2727. People can report dead or sick sea turtles by calling (808) 983-5730.