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Behind the Shot: Entangled Sea Turtle in Sri Lanka
By Simon Lorenz, July 31, 2022 @ 10:00 AM (EST)

A shocking and eye-opening image of an olive ridley sea turtle stuck in a ghost net

Far out at sea looking for whales, our eyes are always pinned to the horizon searching for any sign of life in the vast expanse of the open ocean. When we come across flotsam of any kind, we always jump in to inspect it and see what marine life we can find. On this occasion, we stumbled upon a massively entangled sea turtle in urgent need of assistance. This is the story of its eventual rescue.

Floating piles of trash attract many species of fish and other marine life in search of shelter and food


Ghost Nets: Cradles of Life—and Death Traps

Floating masses of nets, trash and dead plant matter often become a very interesting aggregator of marine life. Many juvenile fish, crabs and shrimp spend their first stages of life on these floating islands, seeking refuge from predators. Hunters will circle and revisit these balls of garbage, and some snappers and even frogfish might permanently live on such suspended homes.

On the other hand, these ghost nets are a huge threat to marine life. This season, we came across various turtles that had gotten tangled, and several floating carcasses of turtles that had struggled in them and tragically drowned. They likely consumed rubbish or plastic which affected their buoyancy, making  it harder for them to dive in order to feed and avoid danger. When trapped, their shells stick out of the water where the scorching sun dehydrates and slowly weakens them. Entanglement also commonly threatens dolphins, whales, and other pelagic animals.

Marine life of all kinds become entangled in ghost nets—and come to an unfortunate end


Spotting the Turtle

We were out at sea for several days with very little luck with whales. Every day, we would start our journey making plans for different sea canyons to cover, but due to a lack of action, morale was rapidly declining among the group. Staring at flat blue ocean all day with no success can become disheartening, and as group leader, I will take any opportunity to make the day more interesting. When the going gets tough, these floating islands of trash and life are something I always look for.

When we came across this very large ghost net mass, it was clear that there was something alive entangled within it, as we could see flippers frantically banging at the surface trying to escape. I hopped in first to assess the situation and capture some shots, and saw that it was a rare olive ridley sea turtle—something uncommon in these waters. My very experienced guide jumped in after me with a machete and immediately began cutting the turtle free.

Our expert guide quickly got to work cutting the turtle free as soon as he entered the water

The turtle was badly entangled so the rescue effort took some time and effort


The Rescue

The entanglement was quite severe and it took some effort to organize the rope so that it could be cut. Some of my clients entered the water to help stabilize the turtle so the man with the machete could get better purchase on the net. During the entire process, the turtle remained calm, and aside from a couple of flaps with her flippers, she didn’t snap or show any fear. It seemed clear that she knew we were there to help, and once she was cut free, we were overjoyed to see that she didn’t seem injured.

We concluded that the turtle was not malnourished or weak and would probably do fine after being freed. And so it was, with a couple of strong flipper strokes, that she returned into the endless blue of the Indian Ocean. Our rescue bought immediate good karma our way, and one hour later we encountered a pod of 18 sperm whales—surely as a reward for our rescue efforts!

Some of the group joined the rescue effort, ensuring the turtle remained still while being cut free

The lucky turtle is finally set free and returns happily to the depths below

The ocean quickly rewarded us for our efforts with an epic encounter with 18 sperm whales


Public Response

Since posting the images online, I have received a lot of feedback about this encounter and rescue. I wanted to address a couple of common questions:

  1. Why did you not help with the rescue effort yourself?

    With four people in the water and others on standby if needed, I concluded that my help was not necessary and that documenting the rescue effort would also be beneficial. We only saved one turtle, but I hope that my images and footage will inspire people to do more about waste in the ocean. If I had been needed in any way, I would have definitely put the camera aside.
  2. Many people commented that we should have removed the floating mass of nets and trash. However, this is not as straightforward as it may seem. While we were rescuing the turtle, six other fishing boats appeared ready to take advantage of our find. Piles of trash act as great fish aggregation devices (FADs) for the impoverished fishermen in the region and after the turtle had flapped to freedom, they jumped in with nets and spears to clear out the remaining fish. We were not in a position to take away what was, for them, a lucky find.

As well as capturing some awesome images, Simon also managed to film the entire rescue

This rare turtle species lives to see another day


About the Author: Underwater photographer Simon Lorenz is a tour leader, scuba instructor, photo coach, event speaker, and regular contributor to DPG. His travel company Insider Divers offers guided group trips where he and his colleagues aim to further the marine and photography skills of their guests. His photos and articles have appeared in magazines around the world, and he has filmed for companies such as CNN and National Geographic. Simon supports various NGOs, such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy, and fights for the protection of sharks on the advisory board of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation. If you want to improve your photography, Simon offers one-on-one coaching on various topics. He also offers free 30-minute coaching sessions, where you can discuss your portfolio or equipment needs. You can find more of Simon’s stunning images on his websiteInstagram page and YouTube channel.



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