Photos and videos of local boaters offering food to dolphins are under investigation by state and federal wildlife agencies.
The images were reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association shortly after they were posted and then removed earlier this week from the Facebook page of Eat Sleep Play Beaufort, a community-based website.
One photo depicts a private boater offering shrimp to dolphins and the other shows a boater raising his hand out over the water to get a dolphin to jump. A video shows more scenes of dolphins swimming alongside a boat. It was not clear where in the Beaufort area the pictures were taken. Attempts to reach the photographer were unsuccessful.
The images were quickly removed after commenters pointed out the boaters' actions were questionable. Feeding dolphins is illegal under federal law, said page manager Gene Brancho Friday. Though the staff member who posted the photos and video didn't notice anything wrong with the submissions, commenters noticed there were references to feeding the dolphins in the audio of the submitted video, Brancho said.
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"In the best interest of legality and the best interest of the dolphins, we thought it best to take it down," he said.Offering, giving or attempting to give food or non-food items to marine mammals in the wild is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to Allison Garrett, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association spokesperson.
Violators can face civil penalties of up to $11,000, criminal penalties of up to $100,000, and up to one year in jail.
Two people have filed complaints with NOAA about the pictures posted to Eat Sleep Play Beaufort's page, including Beaufort resident Dave Shipper.
Shipper said he worries a boater or young child will be bitten by an aggressive dolphin or one that's simply used to begging from boats. In the video posted to the Facebook page, the dolphin slaps the water with its tail when it can't reach the boater's hand, an indication it was expecting to be fed, Shipper said.
"It's a bad situation and it needs to be addressed," Shipper said. "We need to raise people's awareness on what the law is."
NOAA said it is looking into the two complaints, but does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Shipper said when he spoke with a NOAA agent, he was told some boats have been chumming the water to draw dolphins closer.
People are not allowed to grab or harrass the animals, and encouraging them to travel closer to boats puts them at risk of being hit by the boat or propeller, said Lt. Michael Paul Thomas of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
"We don't recommend any kind of activity toward dolphins," Thomas said. "That's how they get struck by boats, and that's how they try to come towards people. We're trying to deter people from doing that."
Shipper also notified DNR, though the agency says NOAA handles such calls.
Sonny Compher, captain of Sonny C. Charters, a Hilton Head dolphin tour company, said he wasn't surprised to hear there have been complaints. He says he sees private boaters feeding dolphins all the time.
"It's the little guy in the rental boat mostly who doesn't know any better," Compher said. "And it doesn't matter what you tell them, they don't want to hear it."
Though other cruise owners say illegal activity is uncommon, they reported similar indifference when they give people "friendly advice" to leave dolphins alone.
"The most common response is total disregard, like they don't care," said Blair Willis, owner of Hilton Head tour and outfitting company Live Oac. "You would expect someone to say, 'Oh gosh, I didn't realize that. I'll stop,' but in many cases, it's quite the opposite reaction."
While some owners, such as Mark Maurer of Captain Mark's Dolphin Cruises said they never see people feeding or bothering dolphins, each captain said the practice is unheard of among dolphin cruises.
Charters don't want to mess with nature any more than they want to pay a hefty fine, owners said.
"None of the professional boaters are going to even think about doing that," Maurer said.
IF YOU SPOT A PROBLEM
To report people who are feeding or harrassing dolphins, call the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association at 1-800-853-1964 or the S.C. Department of Natural Resources at 1-800-922-5431