Photo by Glen Cox
Everything You Need to Know About Seabrook Island’s Resident Dolphins
Featuring more than 2,200 acres of natural coastal beauty, the peaceful, waterfront destination of Seabrook Island is a highly sought-after community located in Charleston, South Carolina. In an effort to maintain and preserve the natural beauty of the island, Seabrook Island has become an Audubon Certified Sustainable Community with a clear commitment and dedication to sustainability. Generations of residents and guests have enjoyed the incredible 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 an uncommon occurrence. Seabrook is one of the few places around the world that provides the rare opportunity to observe dolphin 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 trip!
Bottlenose Dolphins on Seabrook Island
The Greater Charleston area is home to more than 300 resident bottlenose dolphins, with about 25 of those spending the majority of their time near Seabrook Island, South Carolina. Dolphins that are born near the Island typically stay in the area for the rest of their lives. On average, male bottlenose dolphins live to be around 40 years old while females can live up to 60 years.
Lauren Rust, Executive Director and Founder of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, states that a few Seabrook natives that frequent Captain Sam’s Inlet are Step, Koko, and Kai. Step, one of the local female bottlenose dolphins, is believed to be approximately 28 years old, although many scientists who study the Charleston population suspect that she is a good bit older.
She can occasionally be seen strand feeding around Seabrook and she seems to have taken on a matriarchal role as she allows other dolphins in her pod to get their feeding in first. Step makes sure to keep an eye out for all of the young calves while their mothers are out feeding. If you are out and about enjoying Seabrook, you might find Koko and Kai, a mother and calf pair who have made our waterways their nursery.
Feeding Behavior of Bottlenose Dolphins
Firstly, what is strand feeding? Strand feeding is a learned behavior in which dolphins and some other marine mammals herd and trap a variety of fish species such as mullets onto mudbanks, sandbars, or shorelines. The phrase “strand feeding” actually originates from the way dolphins momentarily beach (or strand) themselves, as they push their prey ashore before sliding back into the water. 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. While dolphins can be seen strand feeding around the greater Charleston area, Seabrook Island is one of the most accessible places for residents and guests to observe this behavior. We ask that you please avoid disrupting the dolphins during the learning processes — watching from a distance is acceptable.
Scientists still don’t know exactly what age bottlenose dolphins begin to strand feed, but they do know that learning the technique occurs in the calf stage. A dolphins’ life cycle consists of three defining stages: they are calves from the ages of 6 to 8, then entering the juvenile stage from about 9 to 13 years old, and then finally later in adulthood, they reach sexual maturity at about 14 years of age.
Bottlenose dolphins also hunt prey in open waters, regardless of depth. They have adapted to feeding in the small tidal creeks and rivers that weave throughout the Lowcountry coastline. Charleston dolphins actually spend 90% of their time in narrow waterways, so keep an eye out on your next afternoon boat ride through the creek!
Video by Glen Cox
Where Can I Spot a Local Dolphin?
Our local dolphins are frequently spotted around the surf, inlet, and narrow waterways surrounding the island. One of the best spots to see strand feeding is Captain Sam’s Inlet, where the dolphins are most active in the two-hour window on each side of low tide. Another notable location is the northernmost tip of Seabrook Island’s North Beach. Guests staying on the Island can park on Oyster Catcher Court near Walk 2 and take a short walk 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. This is a tell-tale sign that a pod of dolphins may be behind them! You may even be able to spot Koko strand feeding as her calf Kai intently watches.
The best months to observe strand feeding is from late August to November as mullet migration from the upper reaches of rivers and tidal creeks to the ocean for respawning is at its highest during this time frame. Additionally, resident dolphins are preparing for the colder water temperatures and shortage of food 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.
To learn more about dolphins at Seabrook, click here.
Marine Conservation on Seabrook Island
Strand feeding is an incredible experience that can only be observed at very few locations around the world. If our resident dolphins are disturbed while strand feeding, it can be detrimental to the local population. This is not only a significant feeding source, but strand feeding is a form of learned behavior that must be passed down generationally. Scaring the dolphins during the process of learning can prevent the behavior from being transferred. Disruptions also discourage these shy animals from feeding near our island. If you observe this experience, please try your best to respect our local dolphins. It is crucial that you adhere to the following guidelines to keep you and our dolphins safe:
- DO NOT stand closer than 15 yards 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. Pay close attention to the waters surrounding you at all times.
- DO NOT attempt to wade in, touch, grab or mount the dolphins as they are beached.
- DO NOT encourage the resident dolphins to approach you or your boat with attempts of petting or feeding. Feeding animals can make them desensitized and can result in aggressive behavior and fatal boating accidents.
- DO NOT harass the dolphins. This includes chasing, following, petting or circling.
- DO NOT approach or separate a mother and calf under any circumstances.
- DO NOT leave trash on the beach, as marine mammals and other wildlife species 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.
How Can I Get Involved?
The Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network (LMMN) works to protect the marine mammal populations in the greater Charleston area. This includes Seabrook and Kiawah Island, SC. Whether you are an expert in marine biology or just a friendly visitor, you can help protect our local dolphin population by getting involved and helping preserve our 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 other marine species found on Seabrook Island, please contact the LMMN directly.