DeFINitely Hot: Wildlife Encounters on Social Media and why it’s never okay to touch wild Animals


In the last couple of weeks, I came across some strange content in my Instagram feed. I follow quite a few ocean and marine wildlife related accounts and I am slightly irritated of what comes to show. I have now regularly seen content in which wildlife was clearly disrespected or even harassed by divers, swimmers or other water sports participants. Sure, it’s social media so what can we expect, right? However, it made me quite uneasy to learn that many of the people behind those accounts claim to be ‘ocean advocates’, ‘ocean lovers’ or similar. Predatory sharks being touched and manipulated by ‘conservationists’, majestic manta rays being degraded as ‘selfie accessories’ by ‘professional’ photo folks and sea lions being teased with fish to get petted for the ultimate video experience. Uploaded by the owners of the content or reposted by third party accounts that rely on the daily spectacle – and the resulting likes as well as new followers.

I know. Instagram is about self-promotion and yes, I use it myself (in fact, I’ll use it to tell you about this new stuff in a bit). But from my point of view there is a limit. I know that there are many ignorant people out there or people who just don’t know better (and that’s who’s this website for...) and who don’t think about the consequences when getting too close to wildlife and sharing this on Web 2.0.

But how about people who do know better? Scuba divers, wildlife photographers and filmmakers and scientists? They got heaps of followers and therefore a certain power or ‘influence’, what it’s called nowadays. But do they use it? No.

Well, they do. For themselves to get likes and comments admiring them for being ‘brave’ or ‘badass’ while they are just one thing: selfish. Unaware that with their behaviour they give others the permission to act in the very same way. My favourites, however, are all those who preach water but drink wine by stating ‘well, I’m a researcher/ famous apnoea diver/ one of the Kardashians, it’s different when I do it’. Because to be honest, animals give a damn about who’s in front of them. You can be Jacques Cousteau himself. They still wouldn’t care.

When I recently argued about how wrong it is to touch a wild animal I got reprimanded by another user, who apparently didn’t see any problem with it, to read the message underneath the posted photo. Oh, there was a message? Didn’t see that coming. Well, maybe because no one on Instagram reads the text below the content. I guarantee it. Even with my own pictures barely anyone likes the image because of its ‘message’. It’s because of the picture. It’s because it’s appealing. Which is confirmed by the type of comments wildlife selfies and risky videos/pictures get:

‘OMG, #mustdo!!’, ‘Wow, wanna try this’ ‘Total bucketlist!!!’ are just some of the common ones, often with tagging of other people. The way I see it a message underneath an otherwise controversial image (‘I touch the shark because every day there are 578.365 sharks killed by humans’) is nothing more than a justification and a ‘safety net’ to distribute the content. To being able to get the maximum of attention on the backs of those animals they love. It’s a bit like using the term Ecotourism for something that clearly isn’t ecological or sustainable at all.

Of course there are still many great examples out there, too. They do an incredible job and share their passion with others in a healthy and ethical way. So it’s not all going down the drain. However, questionable content is trending. I think when there is power given to us we should use it to make a change. To being humble and respect the wild nature of animals of all sizes and shapes which should be communicated with the people out there. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

In fact, touching wild animals can cause detrimental impacts. First of all, we put ourselves at severe health risk! Reaching out extremities to predatory shark species is not the best idea ever. There have also been incidents with wild dolphins that have become aggressive after swimmers have initiated physical contact with them. When we reach out to seal pups or whale calves this can elicit negative responses by the adult animals. Do you really want to be chased down the beach by a 3.000 kg Elephant seal? Makes a good exercise though (cause they are quick!). Other marine life is poisonous (especially the very colourful ones) and can harm or even kill you. That’s what the Instagram pics don’t tell you…(Steve Irwin probably would though. However, bad example here…).

But hang on, those were only the things that can happen to us. By touching rays or other fish we decrease their chance of survival. Why? See, they have a protecting mucus on their skin/scales and when we touch them, this protective shield vanished which makes them more prone to infections. Further, animals that do not want to be pet can be really stressed when you do it anyways. We are also able to transmit diseases to a variety of species so in any case it is better to keep your hands away from them. Let’s assume this: You touch a shark and you get your hand bitten off. Who’s going to be blamed? Well, certainly not you. For decades, conservationists fought for the appreciation sharks are receiving today. One incident can change this to the disadvantage of the sharks. I know it’s all exciting to get a little risky here and there but animals should receive the kind of respect again they were getting before people used them as requisites for their self-promotional picture hunt.