At first glance it appears to be the perfect photo opportunity while strolling along the beach, but it could quickly turn deadly. And it's a mistake that many of us could make.

In a growing trend, tourists sharing photos on social media of themselves holding sea creatures such as starfish are being slammed as "selfish and shameful".

That's because many don't realise that removing these creatures from the water for even a few minutes could end their lives, leading to holiday-makers being accused of "killing for social media likes".

Last week, a traveller was criticised after posting a series of photos of starfish at idyllic beaches in Vietnam on a Facebook travel group, along with the caption: "It's truly amazing to travel alone, always".

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Upon closer inspection, many were left horrified when they spotted what was really going on — the starfish appeared to have been removed from the water and propped up in the sand.

The backlash came in fast and thick, and it wasn't long before the post was deleted. The furious responses included:

"Did you seriously stick them in the sand for a photo? Sick."

"And this is why we can't have anything nice."

"*** you're a selfish a**wipe. Killing animals for a photo. Nobody wants to see this. Good on you for ruining the natural ecosystem."

"Absolutely disgusted that you would touch these animals. You clearly have zero respect for the ocean and its inhabitants."

When another Facebook user called for some polite education instead of the fiery attack that was occurring, others hit back by saying, "I know two-year-olds with more common sense" and "a sea creature shouldn't be out of the sea or propped up in sand for someone's aesthetic Instagram photos".

It's far from the only social media post featuring starfish to have drawn the wrong type of attention. One woman was shocked by the response she received after sharing an image of her holding a large red starfish out of the water on a major Facebook travel group.

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The photos may look pretty but they are endangering marine life. Photo / Supplied
The photos may look pretty but they are endangering marine life. Photo / Supplied

The fiery comments included:

"Another animal just died for likes."

"Why did you do that? Just to take a picture?"

"Taking it out of the water for just a brief time can kill it. Now you know."

To which the original poster responded with an apology, saying she hadn't realised it could cause the animal harm. She claimed to have let the starfish go immediately and pledged to never touch one again.

Meanwhile, a search on Instagram for #starfish or #starfishselfie shows a plethora of images of people posing with starfish on their bodies, including their shoulders, legs and even faces.

HOW STARFISH CAN BE HARMED BY OUR TOUCH

Starfish can't breathe out of water, they suffocate in a matter of minutes. Photo / Supplied
Starfish can't breathe out of water, they suffocate in a matter of minutes. Photo / Supplied

Dr Christopher Mah, a marine biologist from the Smithsonian Institution is an expert in the evolution and biology of starfish, known in the scientific community as sea stars.

He has participated in numerous deep-sea exploration cruises around the world, described nearly two dozen new species of the sea creatures and authored numerous papers on sea stars, along with running a website called Echinoblog.

Dr Mah said the length of time a sea star can survive out of water varies depending on its species, however they all need water in order to function.

"Sea stars and their relatives exist by incorporating seawater into their bodies in order to power tube feet, support their body cavity, provide circulation and a multitude of other basic bodily functions," Dr Mah told news.com.au.

He said some species can survive for quite a while without complete submergence in the water, but others will experience stress immediately upon removal from the water. This is particularly true for subtidal species, and those which are not used to being in contact with air.

"Most nearshore stars could probably handle just being out of the water for a few seconds, maybe up to five minutes,' Dr Mah said. "When you get into 15 to 60 minutes, there's stress and death … It's awful."

And placing them on your body? Not a great idea, for multiple reasons.

"Some sea stars have strongly adhesive tube feet which sometimes attach themselves to whatever substrate they happen to be on, and when the people with sea stars stuck to them realise this it becomes worse, resulting in loss of tube feet for the animal. Loosing too many would likely be stressful … and it's a very painful way to lose hair for people."

Starfish can die if taken out of water for even a few seconds, but that hasn't stopped tourists posing with the marine creatures. Photo / Supplied
Starfish can die if taken out of water for even a few seconds, but that hasn't stopped tourists posing with the marine creatures. Photo / Supplied

There's also the possibility that we could pass on bacteria, or chemicals from our sunscreen or various other body products, when touching the animals.

"Humans have a multitude of substances on their skin that would likely stress out or be unpleasant for sea stars, including naturally produced oils, perfumes, soap residue, sunscreen," Dr Mah said.

He pointed out one photo in particular that he found distressing, which shows a group of red sea stars propped up in the sand with their arms sticking out.

"These are Protoreaster Nodosus. Living animals … They live flat on the sea bottom and not with their arms 'human style'. If these animals were not returned immediately, they are most likely dead now," he said.

"This image, to me, is upsetting."

Experts say the trend of using starfish as props is upsetting. Photo / Supplied
Experts say the trend of using starfish as props is upsetting. Photo / Supplied

Ultimately, Dr Mah said it's important to remember than sea stars are animals, and we're much better off leaving them in the water for those holiday photographs.

"Ideally, its best to enjoy them from a distance without any physical contact … As a general rule, no animals that are constantly submerged welcome being removed from the water for someone's Instagram," Dr Mah said.

"So if you're a considerate human being that does not wish to cause problems for animals … just leave 'em alone."

This sentiment is echoed by animal rights groups World Animal Protection and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

"It is never OK to take selfies with wildlife if it means holding, restraining or baiting them," Simone Clarke, executive director of World Animal Protection told news.com.au.

"Simply put, starfish absorb oxygen from water through channels on their outer body. You should never touch or remove a starfish from the water, as this could lead to them suffocating.

"Sunscreen or the oil on our skin can harm sea creatures which is another reason not to touch them."

She also pointed out the dangers that those who touch starfish could place themselves in.

"You should also avoid putting yourself in a situation where wild animals could harm you as some starfish are poisonous. My advice is to see starfish with a snorkel and mask, and only take a selfie with them if you are a safe distance and they are in their natural home."

Photos like these are flooding social media causing outrage. Photo / Supplied
Photos like these are flooding social media causing outrage. Photo / Supplied

PETA also slammed the trend and urged travellers to get their hands off starfish.

"Starfish are sensitive living beings — not cheap photo props or playthings. And just like all animals, they don't want to be molested by a grabby stranger and forcefully pulled out of their homes," PETA spokesperson Aleesha Naxakis said.

"Because starfish can't breathe out of water, they suffocate in a matter of minutes. Others perish as a result of the stress of handling or from coming into contact with perfume, sunscreen, or other chemicals on human skin.

"PETA reminds everyone that if they're lucky enough to see an animal in the wild, they should revel in the watching, not the touching."

Ultimately, perhaps travellers need to reframe such photo opportunities and instead of it being a "look at me, I'm holding a starfish" moment, it could be more about "look how amazing this starfish looks in its natural environment".