Seabrook Dolphin Monitoring Program Wrap Up

As we close this season’s monitoring program, I wanted to write a little wrap-up report about the program. Thank you for the overwhelmingly positive welcoming to Seabrook (90% of our visitor interactions). Since May, our volunteers spoke to over 1,400 visitors at the spit and spent approximately 150 days out there.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Lauren Rust and I’m the founder and executive director of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network (LMMN; a 501 (c) 3), as well as the director of the dolphin monitoring program. I’ve been working with marine mammals for almost 17 years, mainly bottlenose dolphins, both live and dead, all over the world. I have a master’s degree in ecology studying a resident dolphin population in England. I also spend one day a week on the Seabrook side of the inlet. While we’ve had a great response to the program, there has been some negative feedback and I’m asking you to read this article so I can provide additional information and hopefully clear up some misconceptions. Thank you.

Why did the program begin?

Dolphin “strand feeding” is a practice that occurs in very few places around the world.  One of these places is at the mouth of the Kiawah River, between Seabrook Island’s “spit” and Beachcomber Park on Kiawah Island.  At these locations, dolphins not only acquire needed nourishment but also pass along the strand feeding technique to new calves through lengthy (and fascinating) one-on-one training and practice exercises.  All this can be seen from our beaches.

Over the last 10 years there has been an increase in the number of people coming to the spit to see the dolphins and, with that, an increase in human interactions. Dolphins are federally protected, making it illegal to interact with them. This increase in interactions got the attention of NOAA Fisheries (Dept. of Commerce) who identified the spit as an area in need of monitoring to protect the dolphins. The LMMN protection program has been running on Kiawah for several years and was implemented on Seabrook in April, 2018. LMMN’s authorization to run the program is based on contracts with the Towns of Seabrook Island and Kiawah Island that designate me as the lead, NOAA Fisheries as a partner, and a group of dedicated volunteers.

What do we do at the inlet?

Our main objective is education. The volunteers are equipped with loads of fun facts and information about these local dolphins. The dolphins at the spit have been monitored for over 25 years and we have a wealth of information about them. Things like which animal is out there, who is related to who, how old some animals are, who hangs out with who, as well as federal guidelines, etc. We also collect a suite of data such as weather parameters, visitor data, dolphin data, strand feeding info and any human interactions we witness. We are also there to encourage folks to give the dolphins space to feed (we recommend 15 yards) to increase your chance of seeing this behavior while reducing your chance of harassing/disturbing them.

Can you define harassment?

According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), it is illegal to touch, feed, swim with or harass marine mammals. Harassment is defined as any act or annoyance that:

  • Has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (known as Level A harassment); or
  • Has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (known as Level B harassment).

In general, any action that you do that changes a dolphin’s behavior (swimming away, getting spooked, stops feeding, or displaying aggressive behavior) is considered harassment. Over the last few months, we have seen people throwing nets and rocks at dolphins, screaming at dolphins, running up to them for photos, throwing fish at them, holding children close for selfies, running in the water to interact or swim with them and kayaks chasing, circling, separating or paddling right over them. If this doesn’t alarm you, it should.

I would never harass a dolphin, I just want to take a picture.

We get it, it’s so amazing to see, and you just want the perfect picture or video but running up to the dolphins or standing at water’s edge while they’re feeding may disrupt their feeding patterns. We often see people run towards them to get a photo and the dolphins swim away, ruining the moment you wanted to take a photo of (as well as altering their behavior). Also, keep in mind that while an isolated incident such as this seems innocent, these dolphins are seeing dozens, sometimes over 100 people a day trying to get a picture so your actions compounded with others can be considered chronic harassment. There were over 20 days over the summer where volunteers spoke to over 50 people on Seabrook in a 4-hour period, double that on Kiawah. That could be 100 people just trying to get a nice picture and the dolphins are just trying to eat. I think we can all agree- no one like to eat with cameras in your face.

The dolphins strand feed at my feet, so I’m not bothering them.

We’ve all seen this, and it can be amazing or frightening and definitely hard to explain. This does happen, sometimes unexpectedly. Maybe not every dolphin is bothered by you, or maybe just that day they weren’t bothered by you, or maybe there was just a big school of fish there and their desire to feed overpowered their fear of you. It’s hard for me to say but I can tell you I’ve seen animals swim away from people 10x more than I’ve seen them feed at your feet. Dolphins spend about 80% of their day feeding or looking for food. Bottom line- they need to eat, a lot, and strand feeding is a significant source of food for some of them so they will continue to feed, but the safer they feel, the more they’ll feed. There’s also been a new calf very visible over the summer (KoKo and Kai). While the calf is too young to strand feed, it’s learning from its mother, they’ve been out there practicing. The mother is nursing and needs to eat more; she’s also very protective of her calf. Koko is teaching the next generation of strand feeders. If she feels it’s unsafe, she may not pass on this risky behavior.

The dolphins have been here forever, they’re fine.

This is easy to say this when you see the dolphins playfully swimming or feeding on your daily or weekly walk to the spit. It’s hard to make these assumptions without real data. Yes, the dolphins have been feeding here as long as anyone knows. Yes, they come back every time the channel is moved. This is great news but to me it means that the spit is a very important feeding ground for these animals. Maybe this is the best feeding ground or has the largest fish. Maybe these animals learned to feed here as babies and know it best.  At this point, I cannot make a hard statement, but I can tell you that changes to a population take time. Sometimes years, or decades. Sometimes it’s drastic. They are still seeing effects to marine mammals from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. From an ecological standpoint, I do believe that the continual and chronic disturbance to these animals will have an effect on the health of the population. Chronic harassment can increase an animal’s stress level which can lead to decreased fitness, increased susceptibility to disease, reproductive failure, failure to thrive and death.

We have determined that a proactive approach allows us to have a more engaging conversation with beach visitors versus waiting until something happens and energies are high, so I apologize if we approach you more than once. Please introduce yourself and I bet we have new information we can share with you. We encourage you to stay back 15 yards when the dolphins are feeding but you can certainly walk near the water’s edge other times. This is just a distance we have found to be less disturbing to the dolphins and are working closely with NOAA to better define this. Thank you for your patience with the volunteers who spend many hours out there helping to collect this valuable data. Please know we all have the same goals in mind and want to hear more from the community on ways we can improve this program or our approach. Twenty years ago there were fewer people there watching. In 20 years, it might double. At what point will we decide that this area needs great protection for the long-term sustainability of a unique feeding behavior? Personally, I think it’s now.

If you’d like me to present additional findings to your community group, have additional questions or would like to provide constructive feedback, please email me @ Lauren@lowcountrymarinemammalnetwork.org.

-Submitted by Lauren Rust, Founder and Executive Director of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network

(Photo credit:  Patricia Schaefer)

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