Jump to content

Bottlenose Dolphins strand-feeding


Recommended Posts


I had a thrilling encounter this past Saturday with a group of strand-feeding Bottlenose Dolphins. It was at Captain Sam's Inlet, between Kiawah Island and Seabrook Island, South Carolina.

One of the sessions unexpectedly exploded right at our feet, much too close for even a 300mm lens. Words cannot describe the electric feeling of excitement this gave us - such a wild, powerful experience.

I am told this behavior among Bottlenose Dolphins only occurs along the southern half of the South Carolina coast and at a very few other sites in the world. But here in SC is the best place to observe this behavior. As a child, I saw a Jacques Cousteau program about it and was thrilled to see the famous explorer and conservationist filming my local friends doing their special thing. More recently, a National Geographic film crew came to Captain Sam's Inlet to film this behavior.


The South Carolina strand-feeding dolphins always seem to strand on their right side, which can eventually wear their right teeth shorter than their left ones.


Wide view:





Pushing Mullet up on the beach:





Pursuing Mullet onto the beach:





Grabbing a Mullet:





Working back into the water:





This time, on our side of the inlet:





Curling back into the water with its prize:





Exploding at our feet:





Missed its prey this time:





After feeding several times, one of the dolphins did an extended back-stroke. It occasionally eyed us as if to say "aren't you jealous?"





Link to comment
Share on other sites


@@Game Warden - I was indeed hopeful that we might see a strand-feeding or two. It is one of the few places to view the spectacle that does not require a boat to reach, and is fairly reliable if you put in the time. But it is also a lot of fun to head down the coast a bit and paddle a sea kayak to see dolphins strand-feeding in a wilderness area.


Captain Sam's Inlet is a vibrant spot, and Cetaceans are no exception. The ultra-endangered Northern Right Whale winters around inlets in the area and just offshore and its calving grounds begin just south of there, down through Georgia and into extreme north Florida.


Manatees are seen every summer in the Kiawah River, behind the inlet.


It is also a fantastic shorebird spot. Between five and ten thousand Red Knots stage there, fattening up in April during spring migration. It is one of the top wintering sites in South Carolina for Piping Plovers, a highly endangered shorebird. Wilson's Plover - a threatened shorebird - breeds there, as do Least Terns, Common Ground-Doves, American Oystercatchers, Willet, and more. Marbled Godwits are often seen in fall and winter, and Whimbrel are present in spring and fall.


Maybe I could pry @Whyone up this way one year from Marco Island, Florida.


Or convince @@PCNW in a couple of years to make Kiawah Island a vacation successor to the Inn at Palmetto Bluff.


I would be honored to show any a Safaritalk member around the area if they are ever passing through. And Captain Sam's Inlet is just the tip of a wonderful iceberg - South Carolina is one of the best-kept secrets in ecotourism today. Don't get me started on the giant trees in Congaree National Park and the Beidler Forest...

Edited by offshorebirder
Link to comment
Share on other sites

@@offshorebirder thanks for posting your wonderful photos of this amazing event. I particularly like the playful shot of the dolphin doing the backstroke and the first image of the airborne mullet.


I like the sound of 'secret' South Carolina as an ecotourism destination.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is very cool - what times of year are the dolphins seen doing this? I would also love to see a manatee! What is it like there in April, is it good for wildlife, or is summer and fall better?

Edited by SafariChick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

That is a fantastic spectacle @@offshorebirder and a tremendous set of photos recording it. I could most definitely be tempted away from Marco for a couple of days to spend time watching for something like this.


Are all of your photos taken from dry-land? The first couple of wide shots are across an expanse of water?

Link to comment
Share on other sites


Thanks for the kind words @@Game Warden, @@Treepol, @@SafariChick, @@Soukous and @Whyone.


I forgot to include the camera gear I used - handheld Canon 7D with a 300mm f/4 IS lens. I was shooting at f/8, either ISO 250 or 320, at 1/1250 - 1/1600 sec.


@@Treepol - By the way, visiting the Cape York peninsula and the NW Australian coast (Kimberly region) has been on my bucket list ever since I was a teenager watching episodes of "Bush Tucker Man".


@@Soukous I am honored by praise from such an accomplished professional. My friend Pamela Cohen was with me - she is a professional photographer + biologist. She was using a Nikon 80-400mm lens and did much better on the closeup action at our feet. Knowing Pam, I imagine she crushed it.


@Whyone - yes, all the photos were taken "feet dry". At low tide (best time to see strand-feeding), the channel at Captain Sam's Inlet is pretty narrow and the wide shots across the water were of the dolphins strand-feeding over on Seabrook Island. We had walked about 2/3 of a mile down the beach from a beach access point. There is also a county park (Beachwalker Park) next to the beach access point that provides public access to the beach. For anyone interested in viewing the area on Google Earth, etc. the coordinates are: 32.573771, -80.150170


@@SafariChick - I emailed a friend who knows a lot more about the strand-feeding than I. She says that one sees the strand-feeding best from late August, through early November when the dolphins are bulking up on fish for the cooler months. So that is when to come if your primary objective is to see strand-feeding Bottlenose Dolphins.


But April is also a wonderful time in coastal South Carolina. Temperatures are comfortable, biting insects have not gotten ramped up much, shorebirds are migrating through and resting up on their way north, songbirds (like Painted Buntings and many Warblers) are easier to locate since males are singing, wading birds are in their rookeries and bouncing around everywhere, Alligators are active (males often bellowing), reptiles and amphibians are waking up, and butterflies are getting active. Most area waterfowl refuges drain their ricefield impoundments in spring and this attracts amazing numbers and variety of shorebirds and waterbirds. Alligators too! I tend to see predatory mammals like Bobcats, Coyotes and Foxes more in the spring and summer - I imagine because they have young to feed and become more diurnal.


Fall is also a great time - Alligators are still easy to observe and we get much more songbird and raptor migration in September+October than during spring along the coast. And we get impressive numbers of migrating butterflies + dragonflies. Moths (especially Hummingbird / Sphinx moths) are very active in September and October. Several of my best wildlife encounters at Captain Sam's Inlet have been in September and October. There is also a fall bird banding station at Captain Sam's Spit (peninsula on east side of the inlet) that you can visit by prior arrangement if you are into such things. After Labor day (1st week in September) is past the high beachgoing season, so I think vacation accomodations become cheaper then and there are certainly fewer humans present.


The beach on west Kiawah Island leading to Captain Sam's Inlet can be pretty crowded from midmorning through late afternoon during the summer - Beachwalker Park is popular with the families. But if you get there early before the park opens (9 or 10am) you have a lot more peace and elbow room.


* Long story short - either spring or late summer / early fall would probably be the best for wildlife - just depends which wildlife you are keen to see. Feel free to message me and I'll be happy to give detailed interactive advice.


-- I may have given a mistaken idea about the ease with which one can see Manatees in the area. Though they are seen regularly and each year, it is by no means assured on a given vacation and they are unpredictable in their movements. People used to give them fresh water from hoses at their docks and reliably attract them, but a public information campaign has made strides in stopping people from doing that. It attracts Manatees to docks and marinas where there are boats and propellers that injure the Manatees. For reliable chances at Manatee encounters, I recommend Florida. But if you visit in late summer or fall, I can keep tabs on any sightings leading up to your arrival...


For an idea about seasonal wildlife patterns here, check out my Flickr page (some of the poorer photos are documentation shots of rare species):




I forgot to mention that sharks are another type of wildlife one can see at Captain Sam's Inlet. Here are some photos of Lemon Sharks feeding in the surf there (taken on a cloudy day in my pre-DSLR point-and-shoot days):









And one of our most famous wildlife celebrities, Mary Lee, has spent time in the area:





Link to comment
Share on other sites

Cool pictures of the Lemon Sharks! We spent an evening counting sharks a few years ago as part of a research project being run out of the Rookery Bay Esturine Research Center. I have vivid memories of a very large Lemon Shark being man-handled into the flow tanks of the research boat at about 1am!


You do a great job of 'selling' South Carolina - I feel it is somewhere I should visit!


As for Manatee's, certainly SW Florida is a great place to see them - pretty much guaranteed without too much effort at all when we visit in August. My eldest son was swimming off Marco's South Beach (only 20 yards or so) with his GoPro this summer when a regular resident male Manatee came gently swimming by - my son swam over and got some great underwater footage. The Manatee was completely unphased by his presence - even pausing for a short while before moving gently onward. When alarmed, Manatee's can move astonishingly quickly!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

@@offshorebirder thanks very much for the detailed information. and you too @@Whyone? The reason I mentioned April is that my family is considering possibly going to Orlando, FL in April as my younger daughter is obsessed with wanting to go back to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter now that the new section has opened (we went the first time when it first opened). I wondered if I could fit in a little wildlife viewing at the same time. I checked and to get to Kiawah Island would be a good 6-hour drive from Orlando, so I'm not sure it'd make sense. Maybe we should look at Florida manatees instead, though not sure if April is a good time for them. (trying to avoid Orlando in the summer heat and crowds!) And not sure if the areas where manatees are seen is close to Orlando?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi @@SafariChick - we discovered the wildlife wonders of Fl. through Universal / Disney! Our kids were inevitably keen to go, so we made plans for a week in Orlando (plenty!!!) and then 10 days on the SW Florida coast. We have revisited many times since and our boys (now 17 and 20...how the heck did that happen?!) and have always asked if they want a couple of days at the Parks - only very rarely do they say yes - perhaps twice in 10 visits.


As for Manatees, whilst I sympathise with avoiding the heat at the Parks, April is not my time of year, but it looks like Manatees are about to be seen - this looks a pretty helpful site:


Link to comment
Share on other sites


@@SafariChick - there is supposed to be good Manatee viewing at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I think they even have a bird + Manatee observation tower. MINWR is very close to Orlando.


You can find other options for Florida by Googling: Manatee viewing

Link to comment
Share on other sites

@@Whyone? @@offshorebirder thanks for the input. I will have fun looking at the possibilities! Whyone? That's cool that you discovered the wildlife of the area when there to see Disney/Universal for your kids!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

......That's cool that you discovered the wildlife of the area when there to see Disney/Universal for your kids!


I thought so!


Even more so that the kids 'got it' and much prefer the beaches, lagoons, mangroves and backwaters to the madness of Orlando!

Edited by Whyone?
Link to comment
Share on other sites


Thank you for a great sighting and photographs.

The information you provide is also very interesting - this is an area I know nothing about!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

Safaritalk uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By using Safaritalk you agree to our use of cookies. If you wish to refuse the setting of cookies you can change settings on your browser to clear and block cookies. However, by doing so, Safaritalk may not work properly and you may not be able to access all areas. If you are happy to accept cookies and haven't adjusted browser settings to refuse cookies, Safaritalk will issue cookies when you log on to our site. Please also take a moment to read the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy: Terms of Use l Privacy Policy