Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

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Tourists gather on an Australian beach to photograph a dolphin as it comes close to shore.

Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

Death of Dolphin in China Sparks Outrage—and Questions

What you should, and shouldn't do, if you come across a stranded marine mammal.

The death of a dolphin in China that was photographed with beachgoers handling it shortly beforehand has sparked outrage on the country's social media sites.

Tourists on the South China beach near a resort in Hainan Province reportedly flocked to the stranded dolphin to take pictures, with a group of men lifting the animal out of the water to pose with it. They posted photos to China's version of Twitter, called Sina Weibo.

According to official Chinese news agency Xinhua, lifeguards arrived to disperse the crowds and protect the dolphin until fisheries officials arrived around 7 p.m. local time to take the mammal for treatment. It died around 11 p.m. local time.

Social media users blamed the dolphin's death on the handling it received from the tourists, according to news reports.

It's hard to say how much, or if, the physical contact with humans contributed to the mammal's death, said Erin Fourgeres, a marine mammal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Fourgeres said that one of the pictures of the dolphin out of the water showed the animal arching its back, which is a stress response.

"[But] if animals are stranded, there's generally something wrong with them," she explained. So the dolphin in China was likely sick or injured to begin with. "With that said,” Fourgeres continued, “we would never advise anyone to go pick up the animal."

She also emphasized that handling a stranded animal can be dangerous for humans. Dolphins have strong tails and sharp teeth, she said, and "you can get hurt if you don't handle the animal appropriately."

It’s hardly the first time that questions have been raised about how humans interact with dolphins and other marine mammals.

In several recent U.S. incidents, people have been photographed riding or attempting to ride manatees off the coast of Florida, while others have been filmed doing cannonballs onto the slow-moving mammals from a dock.

Another man was given a warning after photographs surfaced of him climbing on the back of a stranded sperm whale, also off the coast of Florida, in December of last year. (Related: "Famous Wild Dolphin 'Beggar' Killed After Illegal Feedings and Pettings.")

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, along with several state laws, makes it illegal to harass marine mammals.

This China incident "points to the fact that we need to have increased global protection for dolphins and whales," said Diana Reiss, who studies dolphin behavior at Hunter College CUNY in New York City, and has also been involved in dolphin and whale rescues.

"These animals, from my own research, are quite aware of what's going on around them, and [they] can be distressed easily,” she said.

If you come across a stranded marine mammal, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a list of do's and don'ts in dealing with the situation.