College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

16 June 2020

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What not to do on the Great Barrier Reef

JCU Master of Science candidate for marine biology, Kelley Meehan, has some excellent advice if you’re getting into the water with Australia’s 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, hold a sea star, pat a seal or a whale, or pick up a sea turtle. I'm here to explain to you why you need to not do that.

Firstly, 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 (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 it1.

JCU researchers look into a tank
Purple sea urchins

You are also in danger. Compared to some ocean beasts, humans are much like china dolls. A small shark can bite cause life-threatening injury. 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 alone2.

Another serious issue is that 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 reefs3.

Not only can you be toxic to marine animals, but they can be venomous to you. 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 deadly4.

Touching and especially 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. This also damages their ability to find food naturally5.

Frequently asked questions

Here are a few questions people often ask me about their Great Barrier Reef experiences.

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.

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.

But you have animal pics on your social media, Kelly.

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.

“If an animal comes up to you, you should not interact with it if possible. Don’t shove it away… Try to get away yourself.”
Kelley Meehan, JCU Student

Blue ring octopus
Don't touch it. Especially if its a Blue Ring Octopus or a Stonefish.

To summarise

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

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1Allison WR (1996). Snorkeler damage to reef corals in the Maldive Islands. Coral Reefs 15(4), pp. 215-218.

Barker NHL, Roberts CM (2004). Scuba diver behaviour and the management of diving impacts on coral reefs. Biological Conservation 120(4), pp. 481-489.

2Lord D (2017). Why shark attacks could be on the rise around the world. Atlanta Journal Constitution [online:]

Florida Museum (2018). International Shark Attack File. University of Florida [online:]

3Lipp EK, Jarrell JL, Griffin DW, Lukasik J, Jacukiewicz J, Rose JB (2002). Preliminary evidence for human fecal contamination in corals of the Florida Keys. Marine Pollution Bulletin 44(7), pp. 666-670.

Sutherland KP, Shaban S, Joyner JL, Porter JW, Lipp EK (2011). Human Pathogen Shown to Cause Disease in the Threatened Elkhorn Coral Acropora palmata. PLOS ONE 6(8), e23468.

4Kohn AJ (2016). Human injuries and fatalities due to venomous marine snails of the family Conidae. International journal of clinical pharmacology and therapeutics 54(7), pp. 524-538.

Queensland Museum (2019) Stonefish. Queensland Museum Network sponsored by Queensland Government [online:]

5Orams MB (2002). Feeding wildlife as a tourism attraction: a review of issues and impacts. Tourism Management 23(3), pp. 281-293.

Burns GL, Howard P (2003). When wildlife tourism goes wrong: a case study of stakeholder and management issues regarding Dingoes on Fraser Island, Australia. Tourism Management 24(6), pp. 699-712.