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Dolphin Strand Feeding: 6 Tips to See for Yourself

Wait a second, what is strand feeding anyways?

Bottlenose dolphin strand feeding
Bottlenose dolphin strand feeding off Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

Strand feeding is a unique behavior in which bottlenose dolphins near Charleston, SC herd and catch fish on the shoreline. Its name comes from the momentary beaching (or stranding) as the dolphins push their prey ashore before they slide back into the water. This is a learned behavior that is passed down from mother to calf, not all dolphins are able to strand feed. In fact, only a handful of the nearly 350 resident dolphins around Charleston actually know how to strand feed.

While other species of marine mammals have been observed stand feeding, the dolphins near Kiawah Island are seen nearly daily partaking in this practice. What sets Kiawah Island apart from the rest of the world is it is considered one of the most accessible places on earth to observe this unique behavior.

But before you pack your sandals and slather your nose in sunblock; here are six tips you’ll want to know for seeing dolphins strand feeding in South Carolina!

Where To Go:

This is key since strand feeding is only be done successfully if the setting is just right. Dolphins need an area of shore that has the right incline and is not too steep or to shallow. Plus, the shore itself must be smooth and not rocky or covered in mussel shells. This leads most of strand feeding to occur in a handful of designated locations. The most accessible location to see the action on foot is from Beachwalker Park on Kiawah Island. This barrier island is an easy 25 mile drive southwest of Charleston, South Carolina. Beachwalker Park is the only public beach access on the entire island of Kiawah. There is a paid parking lot with well-kept restrooms, and a wooden boardwalk to the beach. From your car to the feeding grounds is about a one-mile walk on the sandy shore. As you step off the boardwalk you’ll turn right and head southwest towards where the Kiawah River meets the Atlantic Ocean. This is considered the hot spot for strand feeding and is where you’ll have the best luck at seeing this behavior from shore. Many beachgoers opt to bike the distance to save a bit of time, either way it’s a beautiful trek. 

Bottlenose dolphin strand feeding
SUCCESSFUL strand feeding!

Time of Year:

Originally, I had thought that this style of feeding only occurred during certain times of the year. What a pleasant surprise to find that the resident bottlenose dolphins actually strand feed year-round. I’ve also heard from avid dolphin viewers that feeding activity seems to pick up during the early fall when mullet, one of their favorite fish, are more common in the area.

Time of Day: 

Technically strand feeding can occur any time of day. But since they have to use a lot of energy to chase their prey and surge themselves out of the water and then back in, dolphins prefer a peak time of day. This ideal feeding time changes daily with the tidal patterns. Imagine if you are a marine predator that is chasing fish and there is less water to chase them in, well your odds of being successful go up significantly. Low tide means lower water levels, which means less places for fish to escape to when they are being chased. Scientists and volunteers have observed that two hours before low tide and two hours after low tide are the best times of day to see strand feeding. This gives dolphin enthusiasts a four-hour window to wait in awe. The day I visited Beachwalker Park, low tide was at 2:00pm, so I arrived well before noon to give myself plenty of time to trek to the action. During the hours that I stayed on the beach watching for dolphins I was fascinated to see that in fact a majority of the feeding occurred right around the lowest tide. I was lucky enough to see about a dozen different strand feeding surges. Some involved just two dolphins while others involved six or seven working together. Though I was told by a regular observer that I managed to come on an exceptional day! To find accurate low tide information to plan your day I recommend using WillyWeather. Click here for tide times for Kiawah Beachwalker Park.

Bring the Right Gear:

Learn from my mistake and treat this adventure like a normal day at the beach. I suppose I got too excited and ended up leaving my water bottle, snacks, and sunblock in the car. Since watching this amazing behavior involves a lot of walking, standing, and waiting – please plan accordingly! I’d recommend packing your reusable water bottle, snacks (make sure to carry your litter out) and be sure to wear a hat and sunglasses. I did notice other dolphin watchers bringing a blanket or chair to sit on. Though the dolphins are most active during that four-hour window around low tide, you’ll still have periods in between activity where you lose track of the dolphins and find yourself waiting. Having a beach chair would make for a comfortable break while you scan the surf. Also, if you have a pair of binoculars I’d bring them along too, that way you can really zoom in on the feeding activity.  

Keep Them Safe:

South Carolina is extremely lucky to have a resident dolphin population with individuals that practice strand feeding. Seeing this amazing behavior is an unforgettable experience, but it is a delicate behavior that can easily be disrupted. To ensure that the dolphins’ natural behaviors are not disturbed please practice these guidelines when viewing stranding feeding. And for additional information visit Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network to learn more.  

  • Do not approach strand feeding dolphins from shore- stay back at least 15 yards (45 feet) to reduce disturbance.
  • Remember it is illegal to feed and touch marine mammals, do not attempt to wade in and approach the dolphins.
Wild Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin swimming
Wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.

Pack Your Patience: 

You packed accordingly, remembered the sunblock, checked for low-tide, and even managed to find a parking spot at Beachwalker Park…. but being 100% prepared doesn’t guarantee 100% success for seeing strand feeding. Bottlenose dolphins are wild animals that travel expansive distances daily. There are a lot of variables that must fall perfectly into place for this unique behavior to be executed successfully. Just remember to be patient and enjoy the beautiful ecosystem even if you do not manage to see any dorsal fins.