An early morning encounter with strand-feeding provides
an unexpected thrill.
During the early morning hours of a late winter day, I’m greeted by a heavy fog as I make my way onto the Broad Creek in my kayak.
The water seems undisturbed by wind or current. It’s like glass. The only interruption to the stillness is the slice of my paddle blade in the cool, clear water. Just off my bow, I see lazy ripples spreading toward my kayak. Perhaps it’s the result of a distant pelican diving for its breakfast.
Though I can’t see through the dense cloud that envelops me, I can tell the tide is low. The rich aroma of the pluff mud is unmistakable. Some dislike it, but to me it’s the smell of a vibrant and healthy salt marsh. I can only imagine a fling of Sandpipers scurrying across the soft, unctuous surface searching for small worms and bugs.
As I paddle, I hear the “phooow, phooow” of a passing dolphin. Dolphin can be quite active when lower tides occur in the early morning. I still my paddle to listen. I hear the sound again and then I notice several ripples approach the beam of my boat. The air still opaque, I suspect there are a few dolphin nearby and I sense they are moving with intent. My naturalist’s intuition tells me the dolphin may be preparing to feed.
Soon, I hear the clatter of sandpipers taking flight. I hear the deep, disgruntled call of the Great Blue Heron. And then a tremendous swoosh of water and the sounds of something slapping furiously on the mud. I must be close to the action, as small waves radiate toward me and gently rock my boat.
Suddenly, I realize I know exactly what this is. I’ve seen it dozens of times in the full light of day. I’m hearing the dolphin strand-feeding. How amazing to experience it through sound!
Soon, the warmth of the rising sun begins to burn off the fog. I can now see the Sandpipers, the Great Blue Heron and half a dozen or so Egrets foraging on the remains of small fish abandoned on the mud bank. Three dolphin cruise the edge, attempting to encircle another school of fish.
Experience has taught me that dolphin will strand over and over again in the same area. My patience is rewarded as I watch the barely submerged dolphin move rapidly along the edge. Dozens of fish fly wildly into the air and the dolphin burst onto the bank. They have, again, succeeded in strand-feeding.
Within minutes, the banks are covered by the rising tide. Most of the birds have flown and the dolphin have moved on. The fog has lifted, revealing another crisp, clear, and beautiful day on Hilton Head Island. I think I’ll paddle a while longer.
Get outside and experience the breathtaking beauty and rich diversity of the Lowcountry for yourself!
For more than 30 years, Outside Hilton Head has provided personalized adventures for all ages, from kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kids’ camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddle boarding. Don’t miss the guided full moon kayak tour, which explores the saltmarsh. (843) 686-6996 or outsidehiltonhead.com.
By Capt. Patte Ranney, S.C. Master Naturalist, Outside Hilton Head