Dolphin Dies After Tourists Hold It Up for Photos

Swimmers in China looking for a Facebook photo may have hindered the rescue of a stranded dolphin.

Sanya China Dolphin Dies

Chinese swimmers at the Sanya beach resort pose for photos with a stranded dolphin Sunday. The animal later suffered a collapsed lung and died. (Photo: SHA XIAOFENG/CHINA DAILY)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

A group of tourists on a southern China beach interfered with the rescue of a dolphin in distress Sunday, even holding the animal out of the water to pose for photographs, before one lung collapsed and the dolphin died.

Photos of the incident, which took place at the thriving seaside resort of Sanya and was first reported in China Daily, were posted online earlier today. Young men can be seen holding the dolphin above the water, posing for pictures. According to the newspaper, local wildlife experts blasted the tourists for “hampering the efforts of people trying to save the mammal.”

Tourists notified lifeguards of a stranded dolphin off Dadonghai beach at about 6 p.m. local time on Sunday.

“Many tourists came up and asked to touch the dolphin, and some lifted it up to take photos while we were trying to save it,” Chen Zhongcheng, a lifeguard, told China Daily.

The dolphin was in distress, he said.

“It couldn’t breathe freely, so we had to lift its blowhole clear of the water’s surface every few minutes so it could get some air.”

The nearest professional marine mammal rescue unit is a great distance away, and lifeguards, of course, are not trained in saving cetaceans. But the vacationing swimmers clearly were not helping.

If this had happened in United States waters, these men would have been arrested and charged with harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which carries a maximum penalty of an $11,000 fine. Given that the dolphin also died, criminal penalties—including jail time—might have also been a possibility. But it’s unclear at this time whether the swimmers broke Chinese law. 

Still, some observers called for prosecution. 

“They should face criminal charges. If not for them, the animal may have survived,” said Wang Yamin, a professor of marine studies at Shandong University, Weihai.

The dolphin may have survived—we will never know, of course—but it’s also likely that he or she was already in the final throes of life, and no intervention, whether obnoxious or well-meaning, would have helped.

The complexities of dolphin rescue—and the often gut-wrenching decisions that must be made—were laid bare earlier this year when a sick and disoriented common dolphin appeared in Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal.

Dr. Naomi A. Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International, said at the time that, “when a lone dolphin is in this sort of condition, it is moribund—it is dying. And we can only watch. That is the protocol.” 

Of course it is hard to stand and watch an innocent animal die, she added, “but it’s odd how people can’t project properly when it comes to animals. Rather than project what they would want other people to do for them, they should project how they would feel if aliens did what they want to do for the dolphin. They would see it as abduction even if the aliens meant well. They wouldn’t understand that the metal probes and bright lights and spaceship were all about rescuing them.”

So imagine how this hapless dolphin felt in China. Generally speaking, people and cetaceans are better off staying away from each other in the wild, unless those people are highly trained and experienced experts.

For the record, should you ever encounter a dolphin stranded on the beach, Chen Juming, director of the Hainan Nanhai Aquatic Wildlife Rescue Center, advises that, “A stranded dolphin can drown in the water, so if conditions permit, dig a hole in the sand and cover its body with a wet towel, and add water every two minutes. They should also be kept out of the sun to prevent their skin drying or dehydration.”

But don’t stand around posting photos to Facebook. The inhumanity is staggering.

“We’ll never know whether this dolphin was going to die anyway. But that does not take away the callousness of the swimmers, who thought more of themselves and looking macho than of helping a fellow creature,” laments Dr. Lori Marino, a leading neuroscientist and dolphin expert at Emory University and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. “They made this dolphin’s last minutes on Earth so much worse for him or her than they would have been otherwise. They should be ashamed.”

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