JCU Master of Science Candidate for Marine Biology Kelley Meehan has some excellent advice if you’re getting into the water with Australia’s incredibly diverse sea creatures.
“I know it looks super fun and seems like it's a memorable, ‘cool’ experience to touch a shark on the Great Barrier Reef, or hold a sea star, or pat a seal or whale, or pick up a sea turtle. I'm here to explain to you why you need to NOT DO THAT.
1. You are a danger: humans are reasonably robust mid-sized creatures with a developed musculature and strong bones. It is incredibly easy to unintentionally break, crush, or otherwise harm smaller, more delicate creatures (read: coral, sea stars, sea cucumbers, jellies, etc.) Sea stars can die if removed from water for too long, so don't kill it because you wanted a selfie. You don't know how to hold wildlife safely and you WILL hurt it. (A)
2. You are IN danger: compared to some ocean beasts, humans are pansy china dolls. A small shark can bite enough to incur large amounts of blood loss and stitches, not to mention a significant hospital stay and possible death. A large shark can take your limbs off, or kill you with one well-placed bite. A bikini or a neoprene wetsuit is not going to protect you. Leave them alone. (B)
3. Humans carry germs: the bacteria on your hands and oils on your skin can be toxic to various marine life. Additionally, there are indications that human viruses can be passed to and harm coral reefs. (C)
4. Marine animals are venomous. A strike from a Cone shell is more toxic than most snakes and can kill you in minutes. Blue Ringed octopi and stonefish are also incredibly deadly. (D)
5. Touching and, even worse, feeding wildlife can cause them to abandon their natural instincts to avoid humans and boats, putting them at risk of infections, boat strikes, and other human dangers. Additionally, this can cause species to become aggressive after they learn people = food (think dingoes on Fraser Island). This also damages their ability to find food naturally. (E)
Now, some frequently asked questions:
1. What if it's for research?
Research interactions are conducted under rigorous ethics laws by trained scientists or students. These interactions can include tagging and are done to further knowledge. These are not for fun, and are limited to the minimum possible interaction.
2. What if it comes up to me and touches me?
If it wants to touch you, it's allowed to, and that is reasonably acceptable. However, understand this is not a normal behaviour, and you should not encourage it. If an animal comes up to you, you should not interact with it if possible. That being said, don't shove it away either. That's bad, too. Try to get away yourself.
3. Kelley, you hypocrite, you have animal pics on your social media?
I do have animal pics online. Why? I am working towards a Master of Science, majoring in marine biology, after completing an undergrad degree in the same field. I have training in marine animal handling and husbandry, which is conducted under supervision by professionals. Any pictures on my social media were taken during supervised research. Additionally, I volunteer weekly at a wildlife sanctuary and regularly interact with animals there under supervision by trained professionals. There are some photographs from this, as well. I have also had an exceptionally rare instance of a sea turtle approaching me on the reef. I did not instigate this nor did I try to touch it, but backed away until I hit the reef itself. At no point did it touch me, nor did I touch it.
I have photos online because this field is my life, not for the likes.
Don't touch it. Just don't. Do the right thing. Not the ‘cool’ thing.”
Give Kelley a follow on Instagram to keep up with her adventures on the Great Barrier Reef: @kelley_meehan
If you’d like to get up close and personal with Australia’s sea life, in a responsible way, consider JCU Marine Studies and Aquaculture.
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