South Carolina

Some Lowcountry dolphins hurl themselves onto the beach at mealtimes. Here’s why

Unique dolphin strand feeding caught on video at South Carolina’s Kiawah Island

The Town of Kiawah Island, SC posted on its Facebook page video of dolphins strand feeding recorded by Alison Frey on August 20, 2018. The marine dolphins surfaced at Captain Sams Spit, an inlet at the southern end of Kiawah Island.
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The Town of Kiawah Island, SC posted on its Facebook page video of dolphins strand feeding recorded by Alison Frey on August 20, 2018. The marine dolphins surfaced at Captain Sams Spit, an inlet at the southern end of Kiawah Island.

Some Lowcountry dolphins have learned to hunt fish in a way that takes them briefly out of the water, and a video taken Monday morning on Kiawah Island captures this unusual and rare behavior.

It’s known as strand feeding, said Lauren Rust, a marine biologist who founded the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network.

In the video from Kiawah, a wave builds in the water as four dolphins torpedo themselves toward the shore. They burst out of the water and onto the sand, where they catch the fish they have been herding, and then flop back into the water.

The video taken by Alison Frey, and posted on the Town of Kiawah Island’s Facebook page, shows the group of dolphins strand feeding at low tide on Captain Sam’s Inlet.

Frey, who has lived part-time on Kiawah Island and part time in the Philadelphia area for about 15 years, said she and a friend were riding bikes along the beach and taking photos when they saw the dolphins.

“It’s like they were putting on a show,” Frey said.

In new digital series from Nat Geo WILD, Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade, wildlife filmakers capture Lowcountry dolphins hunting schools of fish. Check out the full episode at natgeowild.com.

The Lowcountry is one of the few places where dolphins strand feed.

The Town of Kiawah Island’s website says the dolphins in the Kiawah River area “are frequently seen swimming, hunting and feeding in packs.”

But the behavior isn’t typical, even from dolphins in the area, Rust said.

“We’ve only identified 12 animals that do it at the spot,” she said.

Rust explained that dolphins have been spotted strand feeding along the Georgia coast and near the Texas and Louisiana border, as well as in parts of a few other countries such as Argentina and Ecuador.

“It’s a rare behavior,” she said. “It’s unique and rare to see it.”

Island Time Charters Captain Megan McLaughlin took Island Packet reporter Mandy Matney on an adventure to meet local dolphins. Meet Stu, Nick, and Cheerio, who we found in Palmetto Bay Marina.

Strand feeding is a behavior that’s learned only when dolphins are young.

Only a small percentage of dolphins strand feed, Rust said, but those who do learned how when they were young.

“It’s not something they pick up later in life,” she said.

Frey said a mother dolphin, known in the Kiawah area as KoKo, and her baby were playing in the shallow water but weren’t strand feeding on Monday.

KoKo is known to be a strand feeder, according to the Seabrook Island community blog Tidelines.

Interference could make dolphins stop strand feeding.

One of the things that makes strand feeding rare is that the beach has to have a gently sloping bank for it to happen.

But even if the beach is perfect, the presence of humans could drive the dolphins away, Rust said.

Volunteers and signs on the beach remind visitors not to feed the dolphins, get too close or make a lot of noise.

“It’s so important that people give them the space to do it and the distance,” Rust said. “We risk losing that behavior if these animals continue to be harassed.”

She said the recommendation is for people to stay 45 feet away on land and 50 yards away in the water.

“Dolphins are more likely to continue doing what they do if they don’t feel threatened by you,” Rust said. “Give them distance, be quiet, sit down and enjoy it from a distance.”

Going to Kiawah Island doesn’t guarantee you’ll see strand feeding.

As the word about the Lowcountry’s strand-feeding dolphins gets out, more people are showing up wanting to watch.

“Most days I do, at least, see a dolphin — but not strand feeding,” said Rust.

Frey explained that, as a resident whose volunteer work with sea turtle nest patrols puts her on the beach often, she has been fortunate enough to watch dolphins strand feeding before.

“A lot of times they just swirl around, so you’ll just see the water swirling, ... and they throw the fish up on the beach.”

She added: “It never gets old.”

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