Kiawah’s gray-silver bottlenose dolphin pods don’t migrate and can be seen off the shores of Kiawah every month of the year. If you look out into the ocean from the beach, you may be able to spot a 6- to 10-foot long dolphin, weighing about 500 pounds, swimming relatively close and parallel to the shore. The most remarkable dolphin encounters you can easily observe while on the beach occur at the western end of the Island, at Captain Sam’s Spit, the inlet of the Kiawah River. It is at the Spit that these highly intelligent and social animals work together to engage in strandfeeding, a community fishing effort Lowcountry dolphins teach to each other, to herd up fish.
Strandfeeding often occurs in the morning at low tide. A group of dolphins will circle a school of fish, usually mullet, and herd them closer and closer to the sloped river shore. You might notice a leader dolphin, pop his head up, checking to make certain the shore is open and clear. If it is, he’ll signal the other dolphins with clicks or whistles. Together, the dolphins create a strong wave tossing the fish up on the sandy shore. Dolphins throw themselves onto the beach as well, behind the fish, catching and consuming as many fish as they can before wiggling themselves safely back into the water. Interestingly, they always come ashore on their right sides.
Strandfeeding is a learned behavior dolphins teach to each other, and is exclusive to dolphins of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. Strandfeeding is risky for dolphins. If they push themselves up too far on the shore, they can strand themselves on the beach. If the beach doesn’t look safe, dolphins will stop their pursuit and consider another attempt in a safer area.
For your best chance to see dolphins, walk or bike down to Captain Sam’s Spit at the western end of Kiawah early in the morning at low tide. Quietly stand still about 50 feet from the shore to give the dolphins plenty of room. During the summer, pelicans will often scope out the area and patiently wait for extra fish thrown just out of the reach of the dolphins.
Strandfeeding also occurs at low tide at the exposed islands in the Kiawah River and in Bass Creek at the eastern end of the Island. Getting to these locations, however, generally requires having access to a boat. Seeing dolphins work together isn’t something that is observed every day, but it is an astonishing sight to behold!
If you see a dolphin or other marine animal, dead or alive, on the beach, pleasec notify Town of Kiawah Island (843-768-9166) immediately.
Photo by Ann Gridley