MELBOURNE BEACH -- Pictures on social media show what appear to be girls riding a sea turtle on a Brevard County beach during the critical sea turtle nesting season.
One picture shows what appears to be a young girl looking as if she's riding a large sea turtle, either sitting on or hovering over it with her hands in the air.
The other picture shows another girl, but her hands appeared to be pressed down on the turtle's back. She was either sitting or leaning over its shell.
The pictures were labeled with stickers indicating they were taken at Melbourne Beach over the last few days. They have since gone viral on social media across Central Florida, appalling many people, including Christine Crowe, who spoke with us at the beach on Friday.
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"I think it's abusive. I think it's criminal," said Crowe. "The signs are very clear. These are protected species. Take care of them, and if you're not going to respect them, they need to suffer the consequences."
It is illegal in Florida to harm, harass or take sea turtles, and Fish and Wildlife investigators are on the case after receiving an anonymous tip.
Investigators said they have spoken by phone to one of the girls and will interview her about the pictures.
The photos have also gotten the attention of the Sea Turtle Preservation Society, based in nearby Indialantic.
"People are reacting the way they are about it, with outrage and disgust," said David Hochberg, the society's chairman.
Hochberg said education is key when it comes to the law protecting these animals, but in this case, he believes an example needs to be set.
"If something is not done, that sends out the wrong message that, 'Even though these laws are in place, nothing is going to happen to me if I break them. So, what's to stop me from doing it?'" said Hochberg.
Sea turtles are aquatic and buoyant and struggle with their own weight to come ashore to lay eggs, Hochberg explained. If a person sits on one, it could do serious damage to the turtle's ribs or sternum.
Florida Fish and Wildlife would decide on potential charges, which could be as serious as hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars in fines, or a felony charge of harassing a sea turtle.
Last summer, a federal judge fined and sentenced two men to community service for luring an adult manatee and calf to a Cocoa Beach dock with a water hose, and then "cannonball" jumping onto the adult. They, too, recorded the stunt, which went viral and eventually led to their arrest.