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

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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