Photo of man riding threatened sea turtle catches attention of federal agency

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle by Terry Lilley

HONOLULU — A photo of a man who appears to be straddling or riding a threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle will be examined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The photo, circulated widely on the Internet, is troubling because no one should even touch the protected animal, said Patrick Opay, endangered species branch chief of the NOAA Fisheries Service Pacific Islands regional office in Honolulu.

“It’s concerning for us because it doesn’t send a very good message to the public,” he said Friday. “You don’t want to be grabbing the animal, petting it, feeding it.”

The photo captures a man underwater on top of a green sea turtle, grasping its shell with both hands. KHON-TV identified him as Jamie O’Brien, a professional surfer on Oahu’s North Shore. O’Brien and the photographer could not be reached for comment Friday.

KHON-TV brought the photo to Opay’s attention Thursday, whose office then referred it to NOAA’s enforcement group. Violating the Endangered Species Act can result in a maximum fine of more than $13,000. While it’s not clear if the photo is even genuine, Opay said it’s worth looking into.

“It’s not good behavior from our standpoint,” he said. “We’re trying to help the animal and the population recover.”

The species was in a steep decline starting in the 1970s because of harvesting of eggs and turtles. The population has grown steadily over the last 30 years because of protection efforts.

Greens are the most common species of sea turtle found in Hawaiian waters.

“They’re wild animals, enjoy them from a distance,” Opay said. “Give them some room.”

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