Just after sunrise, a green sea turtle calmly rests in a small coral cave along the reef's edge. I’ve been fortunate to spend many hours with sea turtles, both on land and at sea, but this encounter was a bit different from previous ones. Usually as I approach sea turtles in the water, they quickly swim off wanting little to do with me, but this individual reacted differently. It was aware of my approach and responded by continuing to rest. It was so unfazed by my presence that at one point I turned my camera off and floated to about 2 feet away where we made direct eye contact with each other. A lot of times whenever I make direct eye contact with a creature, I wonder what is its level of consciousness? I wonder about what they do to survive, how they perceive the world around them— I feel certain their level of consciousness is much higher than we perceive it to be. We don’t know what is going on in their minds, but I sense a connection. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to photograph and film wildlife as my profession, but sometimes you get tunnel vision with your camera’s eyepiece and miss actually experiencing what’s right in front of the lens. After a short time examining each other, I slowly floated a few feet back and snapped this photo.
I think moments like these are fairly rare because sea turtles have been heavily persecuted for decades and tend to keep their distance from humans. In 2004 green sea turtles were listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, and to this day sea turtle populations continue to decline. In French Polynesia, however, where this photo was taken, all sea turtle species have been legally protected by the government since 1971. It was a step in the right direction, but even so they continue to face intense and uncontrolled commercial poaching. In the last few decades the government and locals have continued to develop new innovative approaches to protecting these turtles and other marine species that visit the island. This is in part due to their economic benefits through tourism.
People from all around the world visit French Polynesia to see whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, you name it. When I was looking at this turtle I couldn’t help but think that because of eco-tourism, animals here didn’t feel as threatened by humans as they had in other areas. For me, experiencing such a rare moment like this was a sign of hope that if we continue to focus on protecting our planet’s ecosystems and the animals that we share it with, both humans and nature can thrive.