South Carolina

Hilton Head charter captain finds unlikely fishing buddies — a dolphin mom and baby

Drone video shows dolphin and calf chasing school of fish in Hilton Head Island creek

Brian Vaughn, captain of Off The Hook Fishing Charters, was scouting out new spots to take clients near Hilton Head Island, S.C., when he came across a dolphin and her calf in Jarvis Creek. He thought the mother was teaching her young how to fish.
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Brian Vaughn, captain of Off The Hook Fishing Charters, was scouting out new spots to take clients near Hilton Head Island, S.C., when he came across a dolphin and her calf in Jarvis Creek. He thought the mother was teaching her young how to fish.

While splashing in the shallow waters off Hilton Head Island may be common behavior for dolphins, it’s not something the average person sees everyday — especially with a bird’s eye view.

Brian Vaughn, the owner of Off the Hook Fishing Charters on Hilton Head, was scouting fishing locations in the Jarvis Creek area off the north end of the island with his wife and a friend in early February when they saw a dolphin and her calf nearby and captured video using a drone.

“That was a fun day,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn, who holds an International Game Fish Association world record for a jack crevalle catch last fall, said watching for dolphins is a good way to know where the fish are.

The fish — redfish in the case of Vaughn’s video — know where the dolphins are too, though.

“The fish are very aware,” Vaughn said. “That’s their main predator.”

He said the redfish seem to try to stay in areas where there are oyster shells. “It’s their safety zone,” he said.

Those sharp oyster shells are a deterrent against Lowcountry dolphins that strand feed, which is when they herd a school of fish toward the shore and then flop onto the beach to catch them.

While the dolphins in Vaughn’s video don’t appear to be strand feeding, the female dolphin hits her tail on the surface of the water to make a splash.

Lauren Rust, a marine biologist who founded the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, said this type of splash will stun the fish and is often a precursor to strand feeding.

Rust said the dolphin in the video appears to be a mother and her 2-year-old calf. She said calves stay with their mothers up to three years and will continue to nurse up to two years while they are learning to fish.

“Everything a calf learns is from its mom,” Rust said. “Feeding techniques are all going to be learned from their mom.”

Nina Leipold, a wild dolphin advocate who is known as the Mermaid of Hilton Head, said it’s difficult to identify the specific dolphins in the video. She said looking at their dorsal fins is typically the way she identifies those who live in the waters around Hilton Head all year.

However, based on size and what she could see in the video, she thinks the dolphins could be Fran and her 2-year-old calf Smoosh.

Fran and Smoosh are part of a pod of 10-15 dolphins who are year-round residents, Leipold wrote in an email.

Rust said those who watch the video and want to try to capture their own footage should be aware of the laws that protect marine mammals.

Drones are not allowed to get within 400 feet of marine mammals unless the operator has a research permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Anything humans do that disturbs the dolphin’s natural behavior is harassment,” Rust said.

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Lisa Wilson is a breaking news reporter for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The 25-year newsroom veteran has worked for papers in Louisiana and Mississippi and is happy to call the Lowcountry home.


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