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Dolphins – Cute and Intelligent

Viewing amazing Lowcountry wildlife goes hand in hand with any visit to Hilton Head. Many locals and vacationers are actually awestruck by our diverse wildlife.

The most familiar fauna are coastal birds, white-tailed deer, alligators and bottlenose dolphins. I find joy walking the beach and spotting a dolphin break through the ocean water. What happy looking creatures! Solo or swimming in a pod, dolphins seem to exude cheer. I may be a native to the island, but even I stop what I am doing to peer into the water hoping to trace the dolphin’s path.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins may not actually be smiling at all times, but the curved appearance of their mouths gives an appearance of a constant happy countenance. Their name refers to their short, stubby beaks. Bottlenose dolphins have 86 to 100 cone-shaped teeth that help capture prey but are not used to chew. You can observe dolphins seamlessly glide through the water from the shore, boat docks and while out on the water. They have to surface frequently to breathe – two to three times a minute.

This social species generally travel in “pod” numbers of 5-30 but can vary to a much higher number. They hunt their prey using echolocation. This is like sonar, a method also used by bats. The water mammal locates objects by the reflected echo of the clicks they emit. They can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second! They determine size, distance and shape of their target using this method. Unfortunately, their sonar does not seem to detect fishing nets and millions have drowned by becoming entangled in these nets.

Dolphins communicate via whistles, slapping jaws, slapping tails, butting heads and “burst pulsed” sounds. Bottlenose dolphins are an intelligent species with one of the highest brain to body mass ratios of any mammal – close to the human ratio! The dolphin has a large neocortex which handles superior cognitive functions like thinking. Some can understand as many as 60 words and are characterized by their friendly and playful interactions with humans. They’ll play around watercrafts, surfing bow waves and feasting on the fish that follow boats.

Did you know some of the local dolphins spend their entire lives among tidal creeks, salt marshes and sounds without venturing into the open waters? Estuarine dolphins tend to be smaller and lighter in color than offshore dolphins. These estuarine dolphins have a unique preference for how they feed too! This risky dolphin feat is known as strand feeding. It’s a jaw-dropping spectacle only known in the world to be practiced by local dolphins in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia! Strand feeding is when Bottlenose dolphin herd prey as a collective group up onto steep banks. Groups of dolphins create a bow wave to force the fish out of the water then follow the fish to the banks. In the process they strand themselves, consume the prey and then wriggle their bodies back into water. I’ve seen local video of strand feeding but never seen it. My bucket list definitely includes seeing this first hand!

Many local boat charters around Hilton Head Island include dolphin tours. Next time you’re headed our way, why not book one? Be sure to take your camera! Those are priceless vacation memories to capture! Next time you see a dolphin’s bottlenose peering out of our coastal waters, remember some of these neat facts about them. Truly an incredible creature!

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