Summer School: Dolphins 101

Who else is ready for summer! We are looking forward to seeing more dolphins and strand feeding as we gear up for the busy summer season with both visitors and dolphins.

Since 2018, the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network (LMMN) has been running an education program at Captain Sams Spit, utilizing 20 volunteers who spend four hours a day at the beach collecting data and answering questions. This program mirrors the same program on the Kiawah side of the Spit, which started in 2017. The volunteers are a great resource of knowledge and are happy to point out individual dolphins. They also post signs with some recommendations and encourage onlookers to stand back and give the dolphins the space they need to feed undisturbed, thus allowing you an opportunity to witness this phenomenal sight. This year the volunteers will have bright blue vests on to make them easily identifiable. 

Through identification studies, six strand feeders that rely on the inlet for daily feedings have been identified. Strand feeding is a learned behavior from mother to calf. The calf will likely learn this behavior where its mother learned it. This makes strand feeding locations a critical area for individual dolphins. Over the last year there has been a mother dolphin, KoKo, teaching her young calf, Kai, to feed in this area as she probably learned to feed here herself. On some days, this pair can spend at least 20% of their day at the inlet playing, feeding, and likely nursing. We believe KoKo may be one of the few breeding females that uses the Spit to strand feed, which means we need to maintain a respectful distance and not put this stranding behavior at risk.

At least three other mother/calf pairs frequent the inlet making this a safe space to bring their young. Without a doubt Captain Sams is a critical habitat for this small pod of dolphins for strand feeding, resting, mating, socializing, maternal care, and access to the ocean. It also brings great value to Seabrook as one of top things to see when visiting the island. 

Watching these animals feed at the inlet can be exhilarating but please proceed with caution. Research has shown dolphins will change their habitat use due to human interference and such would be a huge loss to the community. On a summer day, the dolphins can be faced with hundreds of onlookers which can increase stress leading to change of habitat, illness and reproductive failure. Without your help, we all are at risk of losing this unique feeding behavior. 

Know before you go: Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act it is illegal to touch, feed, swim with or harass dolphins and violators can be fined up to $100,000. Harassment is defined as any human disturbance that alters the dolphin’s behavior (such as stopped feeding, chuffing, tail slapping, or leaving the area). NOAA recommends not approaching dolphins within 150 feet from any vessel. From land, avoid approaching feeding dolphins and we recommend keeping a distance of 45 feet when the dolphins are feeding. Use binoculars, a long lens, stay seated, and keep noise to a minimum. This year, the Town of Seabrook Island amended their town ordinances to include dolphins. You are no longer allowed to swim in the inlet between the two hours before to the two hours after low tide or whenever a dolphin is present.

Thank you for helping us preserve this behavior for years to come. For more information, please visit www.lmmn.org. To volunteer, email lauren@lmmn.org

-Submitted by Lauren Rust, LMMN

(Image credits: Lauren Rust and Pat Schaeffer)

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