She ran across the yard as fast as her bare feet could take her. Practically ripping the screen door off of its hinges, she took one deep breath and screamed, “Mama! The dolphins are doing their ballet again! Come quick!” Running back across the yard, across the pine cone stickers, to the edge of the bluff, she caught the finale as three dolphins slid back down the mud bank into the water across the May River. It was finished, and in the distance, she heard her mother’s Savannah drawl announcing, “Honey, I’m comin’…I’m comin’.”
She had taken dance lessons for two whole years and knew a routine when she saw one. Child logic is inspiring. In a way, it was a dance of sorts, synchronized movements that were repeated the same way at every performance. It would be 30 years later when she would be able to explain that this is a feeding behaviour performed by Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and is found primarily in Beaufort County, South Carolina. I still call it a dolphin ballet.
When I explain the strand feeding behaviour to my passengers aboard Spartina, I start with the fish.
Beaufort County is the nursery of the ocean with 200,000 acres of marsh grass (Spartina alterniflora), which provides plenty of safe hiding for small fish at high tide. You can think of it as an enormous dolphin snack pantry. When the tide ebbs, the water leaves the grass and so do the fish. Since fish are not brilliant, the majority do not disperse into the waterway. Instead, they get as close to the safety of the marsh grass as possible, congregating at the water’s edge. Of course, the dolphins realize that there is a buffet waiting for them at low tide and, just to make it more interesting, they perform a strand feeding routine. And so it goes …
The dolphins charge the pluff mud bank and the tidal wave they create slings the fish onto the crest of the mudflat slope. The water rushes back down the slope, due to gravity, and into the waterway. The fish are flipping and flopping on the mud, stranded without water. Cue the birds: Somehow the birds get advanced tickets for the show because they are expecting it. They swoop in to take advantage of the fish that are flailing on the flat, but just as they are about to steal the show, the dolphins emerge onto the mud flat on their right side. It is always the right side. (A dolphin’s anatomy is slightly asymmetrical to the left, so pressure on the organs should be minimized. Dolphin can weigh up to 600 pounds and the weight is normally supported by sea water, hence, the pressure will be applied on the right side.)
Grabbing fish off of the mud always results in a little silt (fine sand) in their mouth, so dolphins that perform this behaviour year-round have ground down dentition on the right side. Fish are swallowed whole, head first and enter a three-chambered stomach for break down. This feeding behaviour involves some aerobic activity, so blood rushes to the surface of their skin, similar to your skin getting flush after a jog. You may see pink bellies.
The finale is the exit. In unison, the dolphins slide back down the mud bank and enter the water. If the bank is not steep, they will use their tail for leverage to wiggle down the slope. The birds are still clamouring and tend to follow the dolphins like lazy groupies in a travelling show. From start to finish, the entire performance lasts less than a minute and it is not scheduled. If you are in the right place at the right time, consider yourself very blessed.
Speaking of lazy, the dolphins cannot dance their way into free meals anymore. In the past, they have been known to beg boaters for treats, but in 1992, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) was amended to make it is a federal offense to feed dolphins. Dolphins have eventually come to the realization that, for the most part, the gravy train has dried up.
However, they are shrimp boat groupies and are able to distinguish the sounds of individual motors humming their way back into the sound. Fishing boats “haul their catch” (throw bycatch or unused bait overboard). Both fin and feather gather to snack on the fish that fall over the gunnels. Stunned, or fresh dead, these fish are easy targets for lazy marine life. Despite this habituation, dolphins do not stick around to welcome shrimp boats and do not rely on them as their primary food source. They are here to eat as much as they possibly can—and it is all in the Spartina!
“OK, Honey, what did you want to show me?”
“Mama, you missed the whole thang!”
Little did she know that this was one of many experiences on the May River that would shape the child’s future. I did not attend the debutante ball or marry a good Southern boy, but I have my roots planted firmly at the edge of that bluff, watching the dolphin perform the most impressive dance I’ve ever seen. The picture that was the inspiration for this article can be found in Eric Horan’s new book, Beholding Nature. The title conveys the majesty of divinely inspired local treasures he has digitally captured over the years. These pictures conjure nostalgia for some of us and wonder in all.
Written by Amber Kuehn. Photography by Eric Horan.