The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is probably the #1 wildlife attraction that encourages visitors and locals alike to get out and explore our South Carolina tidal marsh environment.
Their sheer size, some weighing in at as much as 1300 pounds, elicits gasps of delight as they surface next to a kayak, paddleboard or boat. And due to their social nature and intelligence, they continually amaze onlookers with their antics.
Beachgoers play an important role in dolphin protection as well.
Lowcountry dolphins practice a behavior called strand feeding – seen in only a few dolphin populations worldwide. Strand feeding is an inherited feeding technique used by bottlenose dolphins near and around coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina. When a pod finds a school of fish, they will circle the school and trap the fish in a mini whirlpool. Then, the dolphins will charge at the school and push their bodies up onto a mud-flat, forcing the fish on the mud-flat, as well.
They work in synchrony to herd fish onto the shoreline and beach themselves temporarily to catch their prey. The dolphins then crawl around on their sides, consuming the fish they washed up on shore. Strand feeding happens only during low tides.
This fascinating phenomenon can be interrupted by beachgoers who come too close.
If you’re lucky enough to witness strand feeding from the shore, follow the same distancing requirements and give the animals a wide berth. It is illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal. Fines for feeding and/or harassing dolphins can reach up to $100,000. Bottlenose dolphins are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
For more information about safe interactions with dolphins and other marine mammals, visit NOAA Fisheries’ guidelines website.
For more information about participating in dolphin monitoring, reporting sightings and other ways to protect dolphins in South Carolina, visit the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network’s website.
Tips for being dolphin friendly in South Carolina:
- Use caution when navigating in shallow waters and tidal creeks.
- Always heed “no wake” zones, operating boat at the lowest possible speed while maintaining steerage.
- Never feed dolphins. This teaches animals to approach boats and docks, putting them at greater risk of a boat strike, and it is illegal.
- Do not dispose of fish carcasses when dolphins are nearby.
- Never pursue, harass or interact with dolphins. It is dangerous for the animals and illegal.
- Report any wildlife violations to SCDNR’s 24/7 hotline: 1-800-922-5431.