Kiawah Dolphin Education Program

dolphin3 - Copy“Strand feeding” is a unique hunting behavior in which bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) work together in small groups to herd fish towards the shore. They then use a powerful wave to push the fish onto the shore and then lunge onto the shore to grab the fish. Giving the dolphins their space while strand feeding is important to ensure they are not harassed and this specialized hunting strategy is not disrupted. Each year, NOAA Fisheries receives reports of people trying to illegally interact with (touch, chase, or swim with) or even hand feed the dolphins as they strand on the beaches of Kiawah Island, South Carolina; these interactions are violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The purpose of this project is to reduce disturbance to strand feeding dolphins and minimize violations of the MMPA, as well as better understand the local dolphin population and this feeding strategy.  Components of this project include community outreach on/near the beaches where dolphins are known to strand feed, as well as distribution of outreach materials throughout the Kiawah Island Community. Also, data will be collected to help biologists better understand this unique strand feeding behavior (i.e., frequency, number of dolphins, photo documentation). 
Kiawah Island is one of a few locations in the US that dolphins are known to strand feed. Disturbing the animals can disrupt their behaviors and could result in changes or abandonment of this foraging behavior. Strand feeding can be observed from shore, kayaks and boats, and has become somewhat of a spectacle to onlookers.  

This project aims to increase awareness of the importance of maintaining a distance from strand feeding dolphins and how to responsibly view them without causing harassment during important foraging activities, thus, preserving this extremely unique viewing experience and allow for Kiawah Island to become leaders in this conservation effort. Identifying feeding hotspots will allow us to focus conservation efforts on those areas as well as understand the impacts on individual strand feeders if these habitats are lost or if the behavior is abandoned. Implementation of an educational program will involve monitoring on the beach during peak times for strand feeding to observe and record dolphin behavior and engage the public about maintaining a safe viewing distance. Educational materials will be available and provided to local residents and businesses both directly and at local events on Kiawah. The project team will establish relationships with the Town of Kiawah to better understand the value of this behavior to the community while working together towards the conservation of a rare and unique behavior. 

This project has seen direct benefits from the on-site educators. We have seen fewer human interactions when educators are present and there has been a reduction in harassment reports filed. The dolphin data has also been very useful in understanding the dolphin’s use of the inlet. Twelve individual dolphins have been positively identified as “strand feeders” frequently visiting the inlet for food. Several of these animals have sighting histories over 20 years long. We have also observed a mother teaching her young to strand feed, resting animals and mating in the inlet leading us to believe the inlet is an important area for the dolphin’s home range. We cannot stress enough the importance of the inlet to this portion of the Charleston dolphin population for several behaviors and hope Kiawah continues to support the efforts to protect this area from harassment.

To volunteer, email Lauren Rust, Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network.  For additional information, please visit the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network website.