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Dolphin Strand Feeding: Remarkable Behavior

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Dolphin Strand Feeding: Remarkable Behavior 1
Pod of Dolphin in the Calibogue Sound

Dolphin strand feeding is a rare dolphin behavior that we see in the Hilton Head Island area during the summer. Around the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton area, we tend to have around 30 to 50 local dolphin that live here year round. They will move around within a 15 or so mile range. Same with the Tybee and Savannah dolphin. Same with the pods of dolphin in the Charleston area. This is a very normal thing to see.

Now, as the water warms up and The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources starts to allow shrimp boats to start dragging their nets offshore to bring in the best tasting shrimp in the world to our markets, a slightly different type of dolphin start to show up. They are the exact same species, but they have a vastly different behavior.

Bottlenose dolphin learn their lifelong behavior strictly from their mother. You could call the father absentee but that’s the way Mother Nature allowed them to evolve. These migratory dolphin were taught to move north as the shrimp boats start to come to life by their mother because she was taught the same thing by her mother.

One can sometimes see literally hundreds of dolphin following shrimp boats while they are dragging their nets as well as when their nets are up and they are on their way “back to the hill” (on their way back to their home port dock). Many people think dolphin eat shrimp because of them following the shrimp boats. This is not true at all. Dolphin do not eat shrimp. They don’t normally eat crustaceans (but will sometimes). They are after fish and squid!

I am going off subject, slightly, but I want you to think about a shrimp boat trawler for a minute (yes the Forest Gump kind). Their nets drag across the bottom and catch almost everything they come across. This is one of the reasons they are not allowed to drag in the inshore waters, rivers, and creeks; it can damage the existing ecosystem.

This is not nearly as much of a concern a couple of miles offshore. However, the nets do catch everything at that level in their path. The shrimpers hope for shrimp, but small fish, crabs, sting rays, and pretty much everything else you can imagine are caught anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, the small fish that are caught do NOT cause even a small environmental impact. If that were the case, believe me, the DNR would not allow it to happen. The fish I was talking about are menhaden, glass minnows, whiting, and other small “baitfish” that live in the hundreds of millions up and down the east coast, so nothing to worry about.

What is “by-catch”?

The “bait fish” we are talking about are not called bait fish on a shrimp boat. It’s all called “by-catch”. All that is, is a fancy way of saying, “the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species.” That was a mouth full, wasn’t it? That’s why it’s way easier to just say by-catch.

I promise this all makes sense in the end, by the way. Stay with me, here!

Ok, where were we? “By catch”, right?! Bottle nose dolphin need to eat about 1/6 of their body weight every day just to survive. That’s a lot of fish. Now they are not eating all that fish simply for food. Dolphins are mammals and mammals need to imbibe fresh water. Humans drink out of the sink (or whatever). Dolphins don’t have sinks (yet). Every saltwater fish has a little bit of freshwater inside of it. This is how dolphins get the freshwater they need to survive and also why you don’t see very many manatees north of The Savannah River.

So that’s how the migratory dolphin get what they need to survive. But what about the local dolphin? Well, they will also hang out with the shrimp boats for an easy meal but they have one of the rarest ways of feeding in the world. Strand Feeding! Once again, this is a learned behavior. Mother to offspring.

Dolphin Strand Feeding: Remarkable Behavior 2
A Dolphin strand feeding in The Low Country of South Carolina

Dolphin Strand Feeding: Rare Dolphin Behavior on Hilton Head Island

A pod of dolphin will seek out a school of Mullet (a GREAT bait fish and a terrible hair style!) and get them bunched up along the shoreline in an area with few hazards like oysters, rocks, or other potentially perilous shoreline. The pod of dolphin will coordinate an “attack” on the mullet all at once. They will all face toward the pluff mud and rush the bank in one line.

The mullet try to escape certain death by fleeing the water entirely. The mullet actually jump out of the water onto the mud bank. This doesn’t stop the dolphin at all. They glide up the mud bank and, quite literally, beach themselves. As the mullet are flipping around on the mud to get back into the water, the clever dolphin will pick them off in mid air. It is a sight to be seen, for sure!

Why do dolphin strand feeding lay on their side?

Now, dolphin are not anatomically evolved to be on dry land. Their own weight could crush some of their internal organs, such as their heart. Because of this, the strand feeding dolphin almost always beach themselves and strand feed on their right side, leaving their heart in a safer area.

After the dolphin have eaten all that the egrets, herons, and pelicans don’t steal from them, they almost always will let gravity pull them back into the water tail first. However, gravity isn’t always enough. The dolphin will sometimes “swim” in the loose pluff mud and make their way back into the safely of the water.

Dolphin Strand Feeding: Remarkable Behavior 3

The strand feeding sessions will sometimes last quite a while. Each time the pod strands themselves will normally take about a minute or so at the most, but I have personally witnessed a hungry pod of dolphin strand feed 15 times in a row with a couple of min in between to catch their breath. When the mullet are plentiful, pods of dolphin can feed in this way for over an hour.

Dolphin truly are amazing, intelligent, and majestic animals. Now the chances of you seeing strand feeding on your own is going to be pretty low. You will need a guide to take you where they sometimes strand feed and it’s never a guarantee to see them. Low tide is your best bet and mullet have to be present. As far as where to look, pluff mud banks at low tide that are free of debris like oysters and rocks is where they will be.

I’ve also noticed that most of the time I see strand feeding is when there are a LACK of boats. That can be a big problem in the summer time with all of the tourists out and about. Always best to hire a guide. Luckily, we can get you out to the dolphin right here at Captain Buddy’s! Get in touch with us and we can fill you in on the best times to view the dolphin and hope to see strand feeding in the wild!