by Eric Lucas
The 8-year-old boy chasing the young sea turtle down the beach was having “fun.” His father stood by, glancing up occasionally while he texted a football bet to a buddy.
Also enjoying themselves were the two dozen beachgoers who had surrounded a full-grown, 4-foot-long green sea turtle in the water at shore’s edge at this lovely, famous island resort. As the turtle drifted back and forth in the swells, trying to get out to sea, its “admirers” followed it to and fro, cell-phones clicking incessantly so they could capture the special moment for Instagram and Twitter and Pinterest and Facebook. Some were barely a foot away. I wondered if they knew that a turtle has jaws strong enough to easily clap off a finger.
But sea turtles are gentle creatures; too gentle, actually, as they were long easily captured until international outcry brought them protected status. Now, U.S. law requires that people maintain a respectful distance from sea turtles, not encircle them or block their path to the open ocean, or otherwise bother or annoy them.
The penalty for violating this law runs up to $20,000. It’s called Level B harassment, which sounds serious indeed; but in our brave new world where all of the earth is on display for all of humanity, in person or digitally, the law means little. Nor, I’m afraid, do simple standards of decency, integrity and care.
The past five years have proven there is nothing under the sun that people will not watch, record and disseminate. As with most things of human devising, this is both good and bad, but lately there’s been an awful lot of bad—especially when it comes to the living creatures with which we share our planet.
I’ve seen hundreds of boats, engines roaring, chase a few dozen orcas around Puget Sound, where I live. A scientist who measured the noise these animals are subjected to calls it “like a helicopter overhead.”
A backpacker hiking in the wilderness at Denali National Park ignored every rule about bear safety that park visitors are taught—and while taking photographs much too close, was killed by a grizzly. Park rules required wildlife managers to hunt down the bear and kill it, too.
A park manager I know (at a different park) once watched a young couple painting honey on their child’s face so they could get video of a bear licking it off little Joey’s nose. “I’m supposed to shoot the bear, but I should have shot the parents,” he told me.
In some parts of the world—including Florida--people ride dolphins as if they were ponies, put there for our entertainment. In Belize, tour operators throw bloody meat in the water along the famed barrier reef so visitors can see sharks and manta rays. Same in South Africa.
Last year, my wife and I watched a half-drunk group of hotel wedding guests head deliberately out into a tropical bay to swim with dolphins—some of these jackasses even trying to ride the mammals. The guests had been explicitly told by resort staff members that this was illegal and wrong; the equipment managers refused to supply the guests snorkel gear. After their fun, the guests complained to resort executives.
The dolphins come into the bay so their young can rest. It’s their nursery!
The visitors didn’t care. They wanted their thrills.
This phenomenon is endemic, across the world; in some places, travel industry folks aid and abet it. In others, such as Hawai’i, resort and tour operators try hard to curb their savage human clients.
But I fear that the late 20th century movement to expose travelers to the wonders of the wild world has blown up in our faces. Wildlife watching is a multi-billion-dollar industry; it is the highlight of trips to innumerable marvelous places, such as Alaska, Hawai’i, Baja California, Yellowstone, Western Canada, the Everglades, the Amazon, Africa, Australia. Millions, maybe billions, of travelers are heading out in boats, ATVs, planes, helicopters, buses and all manner of conveyances just so they can see bears, whales, eagles, dolphins, monkeys, parrots, alligators, elephants, lions, gorillas, sharks and such. Trophy hunting has been replaced by a new activity I call “trophy travel,” in which the object is to notch items on your belt.
In Alaska, it’s bears fishing, whales breaching, moose munching, wolves howling. It’s buffalo in Yellowstone; cars block the highway for miles when bison appear by the road. In Baja, it’s sea lions, and tourists swim with them in a weird roller derby that the big mammals seem to consider a game. In other places, some operators offer guaranteed sightings, as if wild creatures were just unpaid slaves performing for our obsessive desires.
There are responsible ways and places to watch wild animals—Southeast Alaska has two of the best, Anan Creek and Pack Creek, where the humans are in the “zoo,” under stringent behavior guidelines, and the bears go about their lives with no interference. Whale watch operators in Seward, Alaska, stop their boat engines when orcas swim nearby. Humpback whale fans in Hawai’i in the winter get quite a show just by watching from the beach.
The theory is that the more we expose people to the natural wonders around us, the more they will appreciate and care for the planet we all share. Sounds good, but the scant research has shown nothing of the sort—in one study, university scientists asked sea-turtle watchers if they were willing to change their lifestyles. Plastic kills as many turtles these days as hunters, but 93 percent of the turtle tourists were unwilling to moderate their use of plastic bags.
I had watched, at that wonderful beach with the sea turtles, a heartwarming ceremony just a few days prior in which captive turtles were released back to the wild. Hundreds of onlookers cheered; scientists who had raised the turtles from infancy carefully carried each one down to the water to set it free. “It feels good to let them go,” sang a reggae musician.
Two days later, I watched the boy chase one of those newly wild turtles down the beach. The turtle headed out to sea, and the boy ran back to his father.
“Dad, he got away!”
“I’m sure there will be another one,” Dad said, watching a touchdown replay on his iPhone.
Visit Eric Lucas at his website, www.TrailNot4Sissies.com.