A saltmarsh produces nearly 10 times the bio-mass (read: Food) of the most fertile agricultural soils.
It is for this reason that the diversity of animal life in the saltmarsh is so great. At any given time – high tide or low tide, dusk or dawn, mid-tide or midday – you can observe Lowcountry wildlife searching for food. Perhaps the most spectacular display of feeding is provided by the dolphin.
Atlantic bottlenose dolphin are always in search of food. Measuring around 9 feet in length, and weighing 300 to 400 pounds, it is said that one mature dolphin consumes about 50 pounds of fish a day. It’s hard to imagine 50 pounds of fish. Think in terms of quarter-pound hamburgers… about 200 of them!
Most often, dolphin feed communally.
Several distinctive feeding behaviors can be observed in our area. One method is tail slapping. Done to group and stun the quarry, dolphin will slap their tails on the surface of the water and complete the maneuver with a sweeping flourish to direct the now stunned fish in the direction of eager mouths.
Another method is referred to as circle or bubble feeding. A pod of dolphin will swim in a circular formation several feet below the surface of the water while blowing air from their blow-holes. Capturing the bait fish within the circle, individual dolphin will swim through the bait with open mouths.
Unique to our area – actually a 100-mile stretch of Atlantic coastline from Charleston to Jacksonville – is the behavior called strand feeding.
It is only here, in the Lowcountry, where dolphin strand feed. No other place in the world! A behavior passed from generation to generation of resident dolphin (the ones that stay here year-round), the pod will isolate a school of fish between their bodies and the muddy or sandy shoreline. With a glorious burst of energy, the dolphin force the fish, then their own bodies up onto the shore… water splashing… fish flailing… opportunist herons and gulls flocking in… then, while laying on their right sides, the dolphin enjoy their buffet.
Shortly thereafter, the stranded dolphin will shimmy, tail first, back into the creek. Or, they will squirm around on the mud and return to the water head-first. Sometimes they strand numerous times before moving on. I have seen a group strand eight times in a row.
Federally protected, it is unlawful to feed or attract dolphin to your boat or kayak. Respectfully observe these wonderful animals from a safe distance. Allow them to remain wild by not interacting with them. Their natural antics will charm and amaze you.
By Capt. Patte Ranney, SC Master Naturalist
For over 30 years, Outside Hilton Head has provided personalized adventures for all ages. We offer kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kid’s camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddle boarding. “The Island’s outdoor outfitter” also offers an outstanding selection of clothing, gear and accessories for men, women and children at the flagship store in the Plaza at Shelter Cove. we have a second location in Palmetto Bluff. 843-686-6996 or www.outsidehiltonhead.com.