Nature's Witness: Sponge Buffet

A photographer captures a portrait of a sea turtle at work as “coral reef landscaper"

  • Photograph by Michael Patrick O’Neill
  • PhotoZone
  • Sep 28, 2016

SURROUNDED BY A WREATH OF GRUNTS, a young hawksbill sea turtle prepares to feast on colorful sponges that encrust a wreck called Spearman’s Barge off Florida’s Singer Island. The site is a haven for these critically endangered sea turtles, which typically arrive from southern natal beaches to fatten up on sponges, their favorite food. Hawksbills are “the landscapers of the coral reef,” says marine photographer Michael Patrick O’Neill. “They trim the sponges, giving corals a chance to grow.”

After more than 20 years and 3,200 dives in oceans around the world, O’Neill is making it his life’s work to publish books for children and talk to them in classrooms about the beauty and diversity of marine life. “All my books are to get kids into reading, writing, science and conservation,” he says. “The most rewarding presentations are with inner-city kids and children who have never seen the ocean. This is my calling, and I absolutely love what I do.” 

To submit images for consideration, write to with subject line “Nature’s Witness.”

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:

Sea Change for Sea Turtles
Ranger Rick: Sea Turtles

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