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 bottlenose dolphins strand feeding along the shores of our waters.
What is Strand Feeding?
Dolphins are well-known for their complex social behavior and intelligence. 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 wiggles 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. As males mature into adults, they tend to hunt and travel solitary, while females continue to hunt in packs with their young. 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.
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 tours have had the best luck finding them in the smaller creeks that lead to the Calibogue Sound.
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 make up of the location of the air passage of 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 feeding is on our Salt Marsh Excursion. This two hour tour of the salt marshes venture out just before dead low tide. This private expedition starts off identifying microscopic critters called plankton, that make up the base of the food chain. We’ll pull crab traps to see crustaceans up close and search the back creeks of the marsh with a chance to spot a pod of dolphins strand feeding.
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 seeing dolphins strand feed 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!