A Perilous Picnic
Updated: Oct 17
No, they're not suicidal, they're not really "stranded," and they don't need our help. Our nutty Lowcountry dolphins just have their own unique way of feeding that sets them apart from every other dolphin on the planet. They like to herd their prey ashore and grab a bite on the beach.
While other dolphins may be content to catch their meals at sea, those who reside along the southern coast of South Carolina--and pretty much nowhere else--have perfected a trick called "strand-feeding." For this method, a pod of several bottlenose dolphins work together near low tide to chase schools of fish (often mullet) ashore until they are flopping
helplessly on the bank. Meanwhile, the dolphins follow their trapped prey by temporarily beaching themselves. Once they've had their fill of fish, they slide smoothly back into the water to either try the technique again or swim contentedly off to some other activity. The average bottlenose consumes 10-15 pounds of fish each day year round, but strand-feeding seems to be most common in the spring and fall when mullet are abundant. This skill is not without its dangers, as it is possible for a dolphin to actually become beached while on shore. That's where the group hunting comes in handy. There is always a pal to help pull struggling stragglers back into the water.
I recently watched a documentary on the National Geographic channel that featured "The World's 10 Strangest Animal Behaviors." Guess what made the list? But why do our Sea Island dolphins eat this way, while their non-Lowcountry relations do not? According to Nat Geo, it's family tradition around here. Older bottlenoses--particularly moms--teach the younger generation how to perfect this learned behavior. Babies begin their lessons by coming along to watch their older pod-mates strand-feed. As they get to be adolescents, they are allowed to join in the fun until they, too, can catch their fill ashore and then safely slip back into the waves.
But why just here? Strand-feeding is often observed along tidal creeks, with dolphins launching themselves onto the slippery pluff mud banks. Perhaps those steeper slopes simplify sliding back into the water. But these mystifying mammals are also seen hunting their dinner this way on sandy Atlantic Sea Island beaches, where the slope is often gradual and no slicker than shores anywhere else. So what's up with that?
Explaining the Crazy
Sorry, but I can't. If the National Geographic Society can't explain the uniqueness of strand-feeding, far be it for me to do so. Like many of us here in the Sea Islands, I suspect our local dolphins are just a little bit quirky--and proud of it. They've developed their own Lowcountry tradition, and apparently have great fun doing it. I imagine the mullets feel otherwise.