Experts from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation...

Experts from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation teach eighth, ninth and tenth grade students how to save the mammal using a life-sized fiberglass dolphin. (July 16, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger

The dolphin was stranded on a nearby beach, the group of students were told.

They tested its vital signs, hoisted it onto a stretcher and transported it to a rescue center Tuesday morning.

The students were in eighth to 10th grades, the dolphin was made of fiberglass, and the rescue center was make-believe.

The simulation was a lesson taught by members of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, a nonprofit organization that rescues marine mammals and sea turtles throughout the state. About 12 students taking part in a free two-weeklong animal science program at Eastern Suffolk BOCES in Riverhead learned what happens during a stranding, and how they can help.

"If you saw a dolphin in the surf at the beach, that animal is very sick, or is entangled, or has an injury," said Steve Abbondondelo, a volunteer instructor with the foundation.

Between 30 and 50 whales, dolphins and porpoises are stranded in New York State each year, said Julika Wocial, rescue program supervisor for the group. Last week, a dolphin died after it became stranded on Jones Beach.

It appears there may be a very slight increase in strandings over the past few years, but due to lack of funding, the foundation is unable to determine whether this is actually the case, or whether there are just more animals in local waters, Wocial said.

In a field of grass outside their classroom, students were taught the basics of marine mammal rescue -- know the location of the stranded animal, identify whether the animal is breathing and call the rescue team.

Next, students learned to use a stethoscope to check a dolphin's heart rate and a stopwatch to measure its breathing. Finally, the students helped get the dolphin onto a stretcher and went over the steps taken when the animal arrives at the rescue center.

Abbondondelo emphasized that unless beachgoers are trained to deal with such a situation, they should alert the rescue center and stay at least 50 yards from stranded marine animals.

Matthew Froelich, 13, of Riverhead said that he learned from lifting the dolphin onto the stretcher.

"I was always interested in them," he said. "But today I learned more about the safety of dolphins and marine animals."

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