Strand Feeding on Seabrook Island
Dolphins Strand Feeding on Seabrook Island. | Photo by Glen Cox
Everything You Need to Know About Seabrook Island’s Resident Dolphins
Seabrook Island is an Audubon Certified Sustainable Community featuring more than 2,200 acres of natural coastal beauty for the most peaceful waterfront destination. Generations of residents and guests alike have enjoyed the unique experiences our island offers – and they aren’t the only ones. A wide variety of species of local Charleston wildlife choose to call our hidden barrier island home, too.
On Seabrook Island, SC, seeing dolphins gliding through our coastal waters is not uncommon. Seabrook is one of the few places around the world that provides the rare opportunity to observe dolphins strand feeding along the coastline. If you hope to be able to experience this magical phenomenon, continue reading for a complete guide on our local bottlenose dolphins and everything you need to know before planning your visit!
The Seabrook Bottlenose Dolphin Population
The Greater Charleston area is home to about 350 resident bottlenose dolphins, with about 25 spending the majority of their time near Seabrook Island, SC. The dolphins that are born and bred here typically stay in the area for the remainder of their lives. On average, bottlenose dolphins live to be about 40 years old, with females living up to 60 years.
Lauren Rust, Executive Director and Founder of the Low Country Marine Mammal Network, says a few Seabrook natives that frequently make an appearance in Captain Sams Inlet are Step, Koko, and Kai. Step, one of the local female bottlenose dolphins, is approximately 28 years old, although many scientists who study the Charleston population believe that she is a good bit older.
She can be occasionally seen strand feeding around Seabrook, however, she often allows other dolphins in her pod to get their feeding in first. Step has taken on a seemingly matriarchal role, making sure to keep an eye out for all of the young calves while their mothers are out feeding. If you are out exploring around Seabrook, you might spot Koko and Kai, a mother and calf pair who have made our waterways their nursery.
What is Strand Feeding?
Strand feeding is a unique behavior in which dolphins and some other marine mammals herd and trap a variety of fish species such as mullet onto mudbanks, sandbars, or shoreline. This event’s name comes from the dolphins momentarily beaching (or stranding) themselves, as they push their prey ashore before sliding back into the water. While dolphins can be seen strand feeding around the greater Charleston area, Seabrook Island is one of the most accessible places to observe this behavior.
Did you know that dolphins only beach themselves on the right side of their bodies when strand feeding? Since this learned habit is passed down from mother to calf, not all dolphins are able to strand feed. In fact, only 6 to 7 of Seabrook Island’s resident dolphins actually know how to strand feed, however, several of the young calves, including Kai, are in the process of learning. We ask that you please be mindful to not disrupt the learning process as you are observing from a distance, so that future generations can enjoy this marvel as well!
While scientists aren’t exactly sure at what age bottlenose dolphins begin to strand feed, they know that learning the technique occurs in the calf stage. A dolphins’ life cycle consists of three defining stages: they are calves from approximately 6 to 8 years old, then entering the juvenile stage, and later adulthood at sexual maturity, about 14 years of age. Bottlenose dolphins also hunt prey in the open waters, both deep and shallow, and have adapted to feeding in the small tidal creeks and rivers that weave throughout the Lowcountry coastline. In fact, narrow waterways are where these Charleston dolphins spend 90% of their time.
Dolphins Strand Feeding on Seabrook Island. | Photo by Ralph Secoy
Where to See Strand Feeding on Seabrook Island
Our local dolphins are frequently spotted around the surf, inlet, and narrow waterways surrounding the island, however, one of the best spots to see this phenomenon is Captain Sam’s Inlet. Dolphins can frequently be seen feeding around this area, most actively in the two-hour window on each side of low tide.
When strand feeding, dolphins often prey on mullet, a ray-finned fish commonly found on temperate, coastal waters. Mullet migration from the upper reaches of rivers and tidal creeks to the ocean for respawning is at its highest from late August to November. During this time frame, resident dolphins are preparing for the colder water temperatures and food shortage that the winter months bring. Because these dolphins do not leave their home range, it’s necessary for them to store extra layers of blubber. Therefore, the likelihood of observing strand feeding is higher during these fall months given the surge of mullet fish.
Your best chance for seeing this rare wonder is right before or right after low tide at the northernmost tip of Seabrook Island’s North Beach. Guests staying on the island may park at the parking pad on Oyster Catcher Court near Walk 2 and take either Walk 1 or Walk 2 to the beach. When you reach the beach, veer left and continue to the Inlet for approximately half of a mile. While you are looking for dolphins, keep an eye out for fish jumping out of the water near the shore. That’s a sign a pod may be behind them! You might be able to spot Koko strand feeding as her calf Kai intently watches.
To learn more about dolphins at Seabrook, click here.
Marine Conservation on Seabrook Island
Strand feeding is such a unique marvel that can only be observed at a few locations around the world. If our resident dolphins are disturbed while strand feeding, it can be detrimental to the local population. Not only is it a significant feeding source, but strand feeding is a learned behavior that must be passed down generationally. Spooking the dolphins in the process of learning can prevent the behavior from being passed along. Disruptions also discourage these shy animals from feeding near our island. If you are lucky enough to observe this phenomenon, it is crucial that you adhere to the following guidelines to keep you and our dolphins safe:
- DO NOT stand closer than 15 yards away from the water’s edge to prevent the dolphins from being spooked.
- DO NOT come within 50 yards of the dolphins if you are in a boat, kayak, or paddleboard. Always be sure to put your engine in neutral.
- DO NOT attempt to wade in, touch, grab or mount the dolphins as they are beached.
- DO NOT pet, feed, or encourage the resident dolphins to approach you or your boat. Feeding animals can make them desensitized to humans and boats and can result in aggressive behavior and boat strikes.
- DO NOT chase, follow, circle, or otherwise harass the dolphins.
- DO NOT under any circumstances approach or separate a mother and calf.
- DO NOT leave trash and garbage on the beach, as dolphins and other marine mammals may confuse it with food, resulting in illness or even death.
Please remember that all marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphins, are protected by Federal Law. Fines for harassment, feeding or attempting to feed dolphins carry fines up to $100,000 and up to 1 year in jail per violation. Any harassment of dolphins should be reported to Beach Patrol (843-518-2880) and/or NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement Office (1-800-853-1964).
To report a stranded, injured, or sick dolphin (dead or alive) please contact SCDNR’s Wildlife stranding hotline at 1.800.922.5431. Please do not approach, touch, or attempt to push a stranded marine mammal back into the water, as they are wild and potentially ill.
Getting Involved on Seabrook Island
The Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network (LMMN) works to protect the marine mammal populations in the Greater Charleston area, including Seabrook Island and Kiawah Island, SC. Whether an island native or a frequent visitor, you can help preserve our local dolphin population by getting involved and helping to preserve our pristine ecosystem. Here’s how:
- Volunteer by contacting Lauren or Brook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Utilize the Dolphin Count App.
- Donate your resources.
“As a nonprofit organization, we heavily rely on our local volunteers to help lead our marine mammal education programs, collect data, and boost our conservation efforts,” says Lauren. “We would love to receive more volunteers for the upcoming season (May to December) so that we can continue to identify local dolphins, observe which are strand feeders, and study their home ranges and relationships within pods.”
If you would like to learn more about our bottlenose dolphins and how you can help, please contact the LMMN directly. Stay tuned for upcoming details about National Geographic’s feature on Seabrook Island’s resident dolphins!