By interacting with the sea turtle, O'Brien may have violated state and federal laws punishable with fines of up to nearly $14,000. Environmental agencies recommend maintaining a distance of 150' from them and using binoculars and telephoto lenses to see them up close. The Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources suggests, "If maintaining this distance isn’t possible, keep safety in mind and move away...as carefully as possible, avoiding sudden movements and other actions that might disturb the animal." The native-born Hawaiian surfer is also criticized for offending local sensibilities that consider the turtle to be an ancestral guardian spirit, and for potentially inspiring imitation of his stunt.
The issue to which O'Brien was trying to draw attention is the spread of the disfiguring and life-threatening disease fibropapillomatosis among the already endangered sea turtles (photos here). Turning the negative publicity back to the turtles, O'Brien reiterates their plight on his Tumbr blog:
O'Brien is not commenting to the media about the photo and has gone back to riding the waves.
"Fibropapillomatosis of sea turtles...is causing an epidemic amongst sea turtles. Sea turtle fibropapillomatosis (FP) was first discovered in 1938. FP is a disease marked by proliferation of benign but debilitating cutaneous [and sometimes internal] fibropapillomas....While much research has been and continues to be done to find the causes and remedies for FP, there is a new and alarming development. Fibropapilloma tumors are starting to show up on other sea turtle species in increasing numbers! If the same pattern of infection occurs as was seen with green turtles, it will not be long before FP outstrips even homo sapiens as the single greatest threat to marine turtles."