Unveiling the Electrifying Secrets of Hilton Head’s Bottlenose Dolphins

In a remarkable breakthrough, researchers at the Nuremberg Zoo in Germany have uncovered a previously unknown sensory ability in bottlenose dolphins: electroreception. This groundbreaking revelation not only establishes a connection between dolphins and other electroreceptive animals but also enhances our comprehension of how these fascinating creatures engage with their aquatic surroundings. What’s even more intriguing is the potential impact of this newfound sixth sense on the dolphins around Hilton Head Island.

Electroreception and its Implications for Hilton Head’s Dolphins

Electroreception, the ability to detect weak electric fields, is typically associated with aquatic or semi-aquatic species. While extensively studied in marine biology, particularly in weakly electric fishes and certain amphibians, this sensory skill has now been identified in bottlenose dolphins, challenging preconceived notions and expanding our insights into marine sensory biology.

Picture a dolphin navigating the dark sediment rich waters along Hilton Head, relying not on light but on faint electrical signals from hidden prey to illuminate its path. This newfound ability could revolutionize our understanding of their foraging strategies, especially in challenging environments around Hilton Head’s unique marine ecosystem. Moreover, this sixth sense may extend beyond foraging, playing a possible role in navigation and communication within the vast expanse of the ocean that surrounds Hilton Head.

The Electrifying Research Journey

The journey into this electrifying discovery began with an intriguing observation about bottlenose dolphin calves, born with whisker-like structures along their snouts. These structures, reminiscent of those in sharks that detect electric fields, prompted scientists to conduct experiments to determine if adult dolphins retained a similar electrosensory capability after the whiskers fell out.

Two female bottlenose dolphins, Dolly and Donna, were the stars of the study. Under the guidance of marine biologists Tim Hüttner and Guido Dehnhard, the research team designed a sophisticated experiment to assess the dolphins’ ability to detect electric fields. The setup, in a controlled pool environment, exposed the dolphins to both direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) electric fields.

The experimental design showcased scientific precision and patience. The trained dolphins actively participated, facing varying strengths of electric fields. Researchers systematically reduced field intensities to pinpoint the exact threshold of the dolphins’ electroreceptive abilities, ensuring the accuracy and reliability of the results.

Sensitivity Beyond Expectation

The findings were truly remarkable. Dolly and Donna exhibited acute sensitivity to electric fields, detecting strengths as low as 5.5 and 2.4 microvolts per centimeter for DC fields, respectively. Their ability to sense AC fields, varying with frequency, emphasized their remarkable electroreceptive capabilities.

The study delved further into whether dolphins could detect pulsating electric fields, similar to those generated by fish gill movements. Astonishingly, both Donna and Dolly demonstrated this ability, although their sensitivity to oscillating fields was not as acute as to static fields. Donna, notably more sensitive, could detect the slowest pulsating field at 11.7 microvolts per centimeter.

A pod foraging along Haig Point. Are they using visual identification, echolocation or electro-sensory to trap prey?

Implications for Hilton Head’s Marine Biology and Conservation

This sensory prowess of dolphins opens a new chapter in understanding their interaction with the marine environment around Hilton Head. Electroreception could prove crucial in benthic foraging, aiding dolphins in locating food along the seafloor, especially in conditions where visibility is poor, and echolocation is less effective, such as in the murky, sediment-laden waters near Hilton Head.

Additionally, the researchers propose that dolphins might use their electrosensation in conjunction with the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation, suggesting a global-scale application of this sensory ability that may also influence the behavior of dolphins in the waters around Hilton Head.

The discovery of electroreception in Hilton Head’s dolphins holds wide-ranging implications, both scientifically and ecologically. It challenges existing paradigms in marine sensory biology, suggesting that these animals have evolved complex and nuanced ways to survive and thrive underwater. The study underscores the importance of conservation efforts, emphasizing that understanding these intricate adaptations is crucial for protecting these species and their ecosystems in the waters around Hilton Head.

Future studies could provide insights into how dolphins employ this sense in their daily lives. These studies could encompass hunting, foraging, social interactions, and navigation, opening up possibilities as vast as the waters themselves that surround Hilton Head. To learn more about our amazing dolphin population, come out for a private tour! Up to 6 passengers we’ll find dolphins throughout and learn about them.

Nature Tours on Hilton Head in October: A Marine Wonderland

As summer’s scorching heat gives way to the refreshing coolness of fall, October emerges as a captivating time to experience the aquatic beauty through a nature tour on Hilton Head Island. The island’s enchanting waters are teeming with vibrant marine life, making it an ideal destination for those seeking a unique and unforgettable coastal adventure.

Dolphin Delight

massive pods of dolphins congregating on a private dolphin tour

One of the most awe-inspiring sights you can witness in October is the playful antics of bottlenose dolphins. Hilton Head’s resident dolphin population, consisting of around 200 individuals, remains strong throughout the year. However, this month marks the peak of migratory dolphins season, bringing the total dolphin population to an impressive 500 or more. This is one of the best times of year to take in the nature of the island and explore the waters with a private dolphin tour.

October is a particularly exciting time for dolphin enthusiasts. While these marine mammals can breed and calve year-round, the fall season witnesses a surge in their activities. The waters come alive with larger and more active pods of dolphins. Males and females congregate, playfully wrestling, and even leaping out of the water in a display of acrobatics that you can witness almost daily.

energetic dolphin leaping in the air on a private dolphin tour

Turtle Tales

While turtle nesting season might be winding down, you can still catch glimpses of loggerhead turtles in October. These magnificent creatures occasionally surface for a breath of air, instinctively submerging when they spot boats. Witnessing their bulbous heads emerging from the water is a heartwarming sight and a reminder of the Hilton Head’s commitment to protecting its precious marine life and nature.

Jellies in the Sound

Early October also marks the beginning of the cannonball jellyfish season. These early adults come in thousands, ranging from the size of ping pong balls to baseballs. These jellies make up about 16% of the biomass in the shallow inshore waters along Hilton Head’s coast during the fall. Observing these elegant creatures drifting through the water is a mesmerizing experience.

harmless cannonball jellyfish delight guests on a nature tour

Bait Fish Bonanza

Massive schools of bait fish dominate the waters in October. Mullet and bunker menhaden swim in abundance, often pursued by predators such as sharks and, of course, the ever-energetic dolphins. In the small marsh creeks, mud minnows flourish, creating the perfect setting for witnessing dolphins strand feeding during low tide. This thrilling spectacle is a testament to the intricate web of life in the island’s waters.

huge schools of baitfish springing out of the water to avoid dolphins while on a private dolphin tour

Pelican Parade

While Hilton Head boasts a resident population of brown pelicans year-round, October introduces the fascinating arrival of migrating white pelicans. These colossal birds have with wingspans of up to nine feet! They grace the coastal waters for a few months each winter before they journey northwest for the breeding season. Their elegant presence adds an extra layer of wonder to the island’s fall marine symphony.

Magical October on Hilton Head Island

October is indeed a magical time to experience nature tours on Hilton Head Island. With lighter crowds on the beaches and in restaurants, this month is all about embracing the island’s true essence – being on the water and immersing yourself in the wonders of marine life. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, an animal lover, or simply seeking a unique and tranquil getaway, Hilton Head Island in October promises an unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe of the ocean’s beauty and the island’s commitment to preserving its natural treasures. To witness this wonderland yourself, book a private dolphin tour and truly enjoy our island!

Hilton Head Island Salt Marsh

Hilton Head Island is defined by the salt marsh, one of the most remarkable natural systems on Earth.  The salt marsh has been described as a biological factory without equal. more fertile than an Iowa corn field, and responsible for producing an incredible amount of biomass.  Over 75% of all the commercially caught seafood will spend some point of its life in a salt marsh.

The salt marsh around Hilton Head is inundated with a fresh supply of nutrients, through a massive exchange of water twice daily. Plants and microorganisms break down these nutrients and use them with amazing quickness. This tidal cycle nourishes the vast swaths of salt tolerant Spartina grass, by far the most important plant of the marsh. The cane-like stalks of spartina are the backbone of the marsh’s production, creating nourishment and protecting the young of blue crabs, shrimp, flounder, menhaden, mullet, oysters and dozens of ecological and culinary importance.

The salt marsh is a harsh, stressful place for its residents.  The plants and animals that live here must be super-hardy, able to tolerate drastic changes every few hours as tides advance and retreat.  If one thing defines this taxing world and dictates who survives here, it is salt, mostly common sodium chloride.  Salt marsh organism, both plant and animals, must adapt to varying degrees of salinity.  In fact, many marine marsh creatures need particular salinity levels at various stages of their lives, and salinity may dictate when and where they reproduce.

black needlerush figures predominately in the high marsh zone.
black needlerush figures predominately in the high marsh zone.

The High Marsh Zone

The salt marsh is broken up in zones; the high, mid and low marsh.  The high marsh zone contains a mixture of plants.  Sea lavender, saltgrass, saltwort, and small stalks of spartina appear, but the dominant plant here in this zone is black needlerush.  Named for their extremely sharp tips, which can easily puncture skin, needlerush grows in soils ranging from almost pure sand to fine silt loam and clay mixtures. It also has a high tolerance for anaerobic conditions and helps dilute organic waste that runs into the marsh from the land’s edge, breaking it down before entering the tidal creeks.

In the high marsh, the spartina grass only grows to around a foot high due to the salt content. This area is the saltiest part of the marsh and floods with seawater for a short period of time each day. As the water evaporates, the salt concentration of the soil increases. Evaporation causes the surface water to draw up more water from below the surface which continues to evaporate and leaves the soil with a high salt content. It’s not uncommon to find areas of the high marsh zone that the concentrations are so great- over 3 times saltier than seawater- that nothing is able to grow.  While void of vegetation, these salt pans are wonderful areas for spotting bird and animal tracks.

Periwinkle snail farming on a stem of spartina grass
Periwinkle snail “farming” on a stem of spartina grass

The Mid Marsh Zone

Entering the mid salt marsh, the vegetation is solely spartina grass. Ribbed mussels protrude from the soft mud. Periwinkle snails, the “farmers” of the salt marsh, cling to the spartina stems. As the tide rises, the snails will ascend the stems on their single foot to evade the claws of ravenous blue crabs brought in by the tide.

The spartina’s robust root system here, wide-reaching roots and root-like rhizomes create a relatively firm but squishy walking surface along the pluff mud. In this area, small organisms are actively working. Bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, copepods, and other microscopic life live in the billions per square inch in and on the mud.

Ribbed mussels in the low marsh zone
Ribbed mussels in the low marsh zone

The Low Marsh Zone

In the low marsh zone, along the creek, is an ideal environment for spartina, a well-known plant for Hilton Head.  The marsh grass is at its most luxuriant, growing to nine feet.  The tides efficiently bring in loads of nutrients and sediments to the upper creek bank and washes away salt, dead matter and other wastes.  Changes in temperature and water salinity are minimal here.  Fiddler crabs are pervasive in this zone, aerating the mud as they burrow for refuge and food.  A healthy salt marsh will boast a million fiddler crabs or more per acre.

This zone is teeming with life; a variety of microscopic organisms such as fungi, bacteria, and algae cover the mud. These provide sustenance to the meiofauna, a collective term for the ultra-tiny creatures such as nematodes, protozoans, copepods, amphipods, and annelids that live on or just below the mud’s surface. The macrofauna, which are more visible, forage for the meiofauna, as well as for algae and bits of dead spartina grass. Examples of macrofauna found here are mud fiddlers, marsh crabs, snails and polychaeta worms. Oyster beds also line the creek banks, while ribbed mussels are particularly abundant in the lower marsh.

Dolphins strand feeding on the right sides of their bodies
Dolphins strand feeding along the bank of the salt marsh

The Need to Protect

The significance of the Hilton Head’s salt marsh cannot be overstated. Not only does it serve as a crucial habitat for several species, but its loss would have far-reaching consequences. Without its role as a nursey for shrimp and crab larvae, commercial industries would suffer. Losing oyster habitats would mean the loss of a natural filter for regulating the health of adjoining waters. No oyster reefs also mean loss of a valuable barrier against storm erosion. The loss of spartina grass would have a ripple effect, leading to habitat loss for nesting birds, foraging mammals, and juvenile marine life. The detritus from the grass plays a critical role in the ecosystem of creeks, sounds, and oceans. Loss of the salt marsh severely disrupts marine life beyond just our shores.

To learn more about the salt marsh, check out the Coastal Discovery Museum! They have an extensive array of information regarding this amazing habitat as well as in depth lectures. Or come out on a tour with us! We’d love to show you how important this is to the future success of Hilton Head and our surrounding area.

Strand Feeding Dolphins of Hilton Head Island

While taking a dolphin tour on Hilton Head Island, there are many opportunities to view wildlife in all its beauty and wonder. Nothing, however, compares with getting an opportunity to witness these beautiful creatures strand feeding along the shores of our waters.

What is Strand Feeding?

Dolphins are well known for their complex social behavior and intelligence. While taking a dolphin tour on Hilton Head, both these traits can be seen exhibited through an amazing hunting technique known as “strand feeding.” It involves herding fish up onto a mudflat in the shallow waters around low tide. Working together to corral the fish into tight groups, the dolphins then turn into the school of fish, creating a massive force of water, pushing themselves and the fish onto the mudflat. They then use their rostrum (beak) to pluck individuals out of the group and swallow them whole. Once they have eaten the fish stranded on the shoreline, they then wiggle themselves back into the water, regroup and do it again.

The few. The proud. The strand feeders.

While its estimated we have a couple hundred resident dolphins that live here full time around Hilton Head, not every dolphin will learn strand feeding as a hunting technique. While both males and females can strand feed, it’s thought the majority of the strand feeders will be female. Visual observations have shown females strand feeding in small groups while their calves stay near observing the action, learning. Even within the female population, its estimated less than 20% will learn strand feeding as a hunting technique.

female dolphin practicing strand feeding

Where to find the strand feeders?

Those dolphins that do strand feed are quite selective on where to do it. Conditions have to be just right. The tide must be low enough to limit fish from escaping back into deeper water. The mud flats have to be the proper angle; too steep and the fish will be able to roll back into the water. Too flat and the dolphins risk getting themselves stuck on the shoreline. Our private dolphin tours on Hilton Head have had the best luck finding them in the smaller creeks that lead to the Calibogue Sound.

strand feeding dolphins in Hilton Head

Right side only!

Dolphins that strand feed will only do so on the right side of their bodies. This brings up some interesting points and some questions that scientists are still working on. Dolphins don’t have the jaw strength to chew their food, so when they feed, the eat things they can consume whole. They do, however, need their teeth to capture their prey. While strand feeding, dolphins are taking in mud, shells, and bits of cordgrass and detritus. These things can damage their teeth over time and wear down the enamel, rendering them useless to grab things over time. Dolphins appear to be aware of this. By strand feeding strictly on one side, they only risk damage to that side of their mouths, leaving a perfectly intact side of teeth to catch prey in the open water.

Why they choose the right side over left is still a mystery to science. It could be a choice due to physiological makeup of the location to the air passage within the blowhole in relation to the pharyngeal aperture within the pharynx that allows them to swallow, or some other anatomical limitation that makes the right side a more preferable feeding side. There are still many things we don’t know about dolphins.

How can you see dolphins strand feeding?

Here around Hilton Head Island, the best way to see dolphins strand feeding is by boat. While we offer Private Dolphin Tours throughout the day, the best opportunity to find strand feedings are at departure times just before dead low tide. Feel free to call us at 843-247-8117 to coordinate an outing to coincide with the tides.

Strand feeding is truly one of the most remarkable feats in nature to witness. To see the coordinated effort put on by these beautiful creatures is something you must see to believe. If you have an interest in reserving a dolphin tour on Hilton Head Island, or just want to get out on the water and see the amazing wildlife our island has to offer, get in touch with us to reserve your private boat charter today!

Family tour getting a view of a lifetime

Things to do on Hilton Head when it rains

Hilton Head is full of things to do outdoors. Beautiful beaches, bike trails, golf courses and boat rides are all major reasons why it’s such a popular tourist destination.  But there are some days the weather doesn’t quite work out the way we’d like. What do to on Hilton Head when it rains?

Don’t let it spoil your trip!  There are plenty of things to do even when the weather runs foul. Here are a few ideas.

Educational Outings

The Beaufort County Library has a Hilton Head location on the north side of the island.  Nothing beats curling up with a good book on a rainy day! The spacious building houses a children’s storytelling area, cozy South Carolina Reading Room, and the popular Friends of the Library Bookstore.  Residents and vacationers alike are welcome to come see what they have to offer.  Open year round, closed on Sundays.

If you have little ones that need to keep their hands and minds busy on Hilton Head when it rains, you should head over to The Sandbox, an Interactive Children’s Museum. Let the imaginations fly in the children’s flight simulator, find their inner Picassso in the Rhythm and Hues art room, or become one with nature in the Loggerhead Sandcastle room.  Hours of entertainment are here, right near Coligny Beach.

Spend some time exploring the history of the island at the Coastal Discovery Museum.  While a good portion of the museum’s exhibits are outdoors, there are some amazing indoor exhibits that include the geological and historical development of the island.  Check out some of the live animals in the Discovery Lab or immerse yourself in the local culture with one of the many rotating exhibits that focus on art, history and environment.  Kids can get an opportunity to meet Myrtle the Turtle, a diamondback terrapin that resides in the Kid Zone!  Located in Honey Horn on the north side of the island, the CDM is a must visit rain or shine.

Indoor Adventures

Ever done battle with robots? Gone hang gliding over an island? Maybe you want to create a magical beast for a pet? If you’re looking for a little excitement in your afternoon on Hilton Head when it rains, check out Atomic VR HHI, the only virtual reality arcade on the island.  With over 30 games to choose from, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Located near the airport, sessions range from 40 to 130 minutes and are suitable for ages 6 and up.

If you enjoy solving puzzles, head on over to the Hilton Head Escape Room.  You’ll have an hour to work on this interactive adventure as your team is locked in a themed room. You’ll work together following evidence and discover clues in order for you to find the way out! Located near Coligny, you could easily find yourself spending the whole afternoon trying the various themed rooms.

Have a Beverage and Relax

Another great way to spend a wet couple of hours is to spend it at Park Plaza Cinema. A family owned, dog friendly (under 20lbs) movie theater, Park Plaza offers several films, comfortable seats, and an extensive food and drink selection. Showtimes and listings vary at this south located cinema, off Greenwood Drive near the Harris Teeter shopping center.

If it’s just adults in the group you can visit 3 spots of locally made beer, wine and spirits. Hilton Head Brewing Company, Hilton Head Distillery and the Island Winery are all located on the same street on Cardinal Road. Offering group tours and tasting, the Distillery gives you an in depth look at what it takes to make premium hand-crafted spirits, walking you through the entire process. Get a taste and a bite at the island’s first brew pub or get a flight of small batch wines at the Winery. 21 and over.

If the rain carries on into the evening, head on over to the Comedy Magic Cabaret. Known as fun, family oriented entertainment, the Cabaret has been keeping smiles on faces for almost 10 years.  Friday nights is their wildly popular comedy game show “BONK” that’s as much fun to watch as it is to play.  Centrally located on William Hilton Parkway, reservations are required.

Dolphins are already wet!

One of the great things about Hilton Head is the weather. While it may rain, it doesn’t usually rain all day. It often comes in small cells and doesn’t last too long. If it’s a little rain, we’ll still go out on the water to look for dolphins. Believe it or not, dolphins don’t mind getting wet! Give us a call to see what the day looks like!

These are just a few ideas of what to do while you’re waiting for the sun to come back out. There are countless more options on Hilton Head when it rains and its surrounding area you can find. Hopefully the weather cooperates with your vacation, but don’t let a little rain put a damper on your plans to explore.

Muddy Waters

Healthy waters are a staple of healthy island life. While visiting the Island, a lot of visitors will ask about the quality of our water.  They see its brown or green coloration and think it must not be very clean.  There’s a natural inclination to see something murky as unhealthy.   Not only is our water healthy, but its some of the cleanest sea water you’ll find on a coastline! The murkiness you see comes from two things; how much life is in the water and what attracts that life into the water; our pluff mud.

From dirty pluff mud comes clean water

While not clear, manatees don’t mind the opaqueness of Broad Creek during the summers

Pluff mud is a goopy mixture of soil, dead animal and plant matter. The majority of that dead plant matter is the spartina grass that lines our salt marsh. Pluff mud packs down densely and doesn’t allow oxygen to permeate below a few inches of the surface.  Any type of bacteria that survives in the mud has to create its own oxygen and you can actually smell this chemical reaction at work. As the bacteria create oxygen, they emit a by-product into the air, hydrogen sulfide, giving it a distinct aroma. Many people are convinced its smells like rotten eggs. 

The pluff mud lines the bottom of our tidal creeks and its top layer is constantly moving with the strong currents we have here around the island. This primordial soup of nutrients is continually being kicked up and swirled about, never quite getting a chance to settle. As the current moves at its maximum speed churning up the mud, our waters turn a very ruddy brown coloration. This is the predominate color over winter as cool temperatures control the growth of microorganisms.

The Phytoplankton Cometh

Inside the pluff mud is a large amount of decayed animal and plant matter.  This organic material is called detritus. Detritus breaks down in the salt water and allows microscopic algae known as phytoplankton to feed.  These guys are tiny.  We’re talking a fraction of a millimeter in length.  As the phytoplankton eat the detritus, they release oxygen into the water. Warm temperatures and increased sunlight contribute to their growth. During the hot summer months the amount of phytoplankton increases and, while you can’t see them individually, you can see the effects of the colony. A large phytoplankton bloom will turn the water a greenish color.

Clean Water via the Food Web

plenty of food to go around during the warm summer months

Is all this algae bad?  While some areas of the country face environmental catastrophes due to algae blooms, we don’t have that problem here.  There’s a delicate balance to maintain and the salt marsh does an amazing job of regulating this by creating a food web. The algae that feeds off the detritus in turn becomes food for our oyster beds.  Oysters are constantly filtering the waters here, collecting phytoplankton, other algae and bacteria and pushing out clean sea water.

Other organisms that eat phytoplankton, include zooplankton.  Grass shrimp larva, cannonball jellyfish and sea roaches are common examples. They are voracious eaters, taking in as much phytoplankton as they can. In turn, bait fish, shrimp, crabs, and mobula rays make their way here and feed off zooplankton.  These animals will continue the food web, as larger fish, sharks and dolphins will eat the smaller creatures.  The fecal waste of all the animals go back into the water, becoming detritus, feeds the phytoplankton, and the cycle repeats itself over and over.

Keeping a balance for clean water

It’s important to have a balance within our water column.  Any loss of one organism can have profound and devastating effects on the entire ecology. Loss of oyster habitat, overfishing or taking undersized fish out of the food chain all contribute to the decline to our water quality. Fishing restrictions include time, size and quantity give a species a chance to grow and repopulate without human interference.  On land, building restrictions are in place to limit the amount of harmful pollutants entering our creeks and rivers.  Without these regulations, we run the risk of becoming another environmental catastrophe.

While the waters here may not be crystal clear, you can be assured that they are healthy and clean .  The next time you’re out on a dolphin tour exploring the waterways, you can be thankful that our murky waters bring so much life to our island.

Contact Us

If you have any personal requests or questions about any of our tours, please feel free to reach out by phone, text or email.

(843) 247-8117

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