Captain Sam’s Inlet is a beautiful stretch between the islands of Kiawah and Seabrook. The inlet is fed by the Kiawah River and flanked by sandy beaches on its edges. This inlet in particular is a critical habitat for a small group of resident dolphins. This subset of dolphins is part of the Charleston estuarine population of approximately 300 dolphins who call Charleston home and come from the Stono and Kiawah rivers to strand feed at Captain Sam’s. The inlet, also known as Captain Sam’s Spit, provides a great feeding ground due to the deep channel, soft sloping banks and abundant mullet in the summer.
Strand feeding is a rare feeding strategy in which dolphins chase their prey onto the bank before lunging out to grab fish and then retreating back into the water to devour the meal. This behavior is so rare that it has only been documented in South Carolina and Georgia on the East Coast and a few other places worldwide. And it’s a bit of a local lore — if you’ve seen it, you get it, but if you haven’t, you can’t imagine it.
Risks at Captain Sam’s Inlet are on the rise.I have spent the last five years observing the dolphins at Captain Sam’s Spit. The small group of dolphins that spend a significant amount of time there are a hyper-local group that move up and down the Kiawah River and come to feed in the inlet several times a day or, sometimes, all day. With distinguishing dorsal fins, locals can see the same animals most days over a span of 40 years.
Let that sink in: You could observe the same dolphin in your backyard for 40 years. Strand feeding isn’t just any feeding technique. It’s so rare, people come from around the world to witness it. In 2020 alone, two wildlife film crews came to this location to film strand feeding. Unfortunately, there’s little protection for the area.
The Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network’s education program talks to visitors about the dolphins and encourages them to give space to the dolphins to feed undisturbed. Human interactions are on the rise. Before 2017, there was little education or signage about the dolphins and their feeding.
We talk to thousands of visitors each year who make the trek to Captain Sam’s Inlet. Most are excited and eager to learn about the behavior but we’ve also documented people trying to swim with or touch the dolphins, throw food, rock, and cast nets while they feed. We’ve got evidence of boaters or kayakers chasing them back and forth hoping to get an Instagram-worthy photo. While our education has been effective from land, there’s little we can do with vessels. Boaters zip through the inlet without a second thought of the dolphins that are feeding below. It can be incredibly frustrating to the hundreds of onlookers hoping to see strand feeding when a boat comes through and the dolphins disappear. It’s also a lost meal.
What’s needed is a No Wake Zone. Our request for a No Wake Zone was rejected by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) in 2020 since the inlet didn’t pose any threat to boaters, although the towns of Kiawah Island and Seabrook Island wrote letters in support.
Through several requests for the SCDNR to make an exception for this exceptional area, I received the same rejection. But remember: SCDNR is designed to protect natural resources and this is a natural resource worth protecting. Dolphins can alter their behaviors based on human pressures and I fear these animals will eventually shift their feeding locations because we didn’t protect the inlet in time. This is a warning that we shouldn’t ignore. Our tendency is to put protections in place AFTER things change or disappear. We will continue, however, to urge SCDNR to protect this amazing behavior that benefits the ecotourism and dolphin communities, and we hope you will too.
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