Untamed Lowcountry

Don't feed Hilton Head dolphins: 3 local dolphins' injuries show how dangerous it is

Hilton Head dolphin cruising: Meet three famous (and adorable) local dolphins

Island Time Charters Captain Megan McLaughlin took Island Packet reporter Mandy Matney on an adventure to meet local dolphins. Meet Stu, Nick, and Cheerio, who we found in Palmetto Bay Marina.
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Island Time Charters Captain Megan McLaughlin took Island Packet reporter Mandy Matney on an adventure to meet local dolphins. Meet Stu, Nick, and Cheerio, who we found in Palmetto Bay Marina.

Hundreds of dolphins live in the waters around Hilton Head, and some of them have become familiar friends to local charter guides and captains.

Unfortunately, several of these dolphins are identified by injuries likely sustained when they were hit by boats.

Nina Leipold, a former dolphin trainer who is now a wild dolphin advocate, said feeding dolphins is not only illegal but also is terrible for the dolphins' health.

"Once they associate the boats with food, boats become their happy place," she said. "They put it together pretty quickly."

Dolphins who learn that boats are a source of food put themselves in danger when they come close to boat propellers.

Beach laws on Hilton Head Island, including those protecting wildlife such as sea turtles and sand dollars, and laws prohibiting things like fireworks and alcohol.

"Dolphins are just not afraid of boats anymore," Leipold said.

They are smart enough to recognize the boats that are more likely to be carrying people who will feed them, she said.

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"Rental boats seem to be a big lure for them," Leipold said. "Sadly, there are a few dolphin tours who feed them as well to attract them to their boats."

Leipold said dolphins who fill up on human food are also at a risk for dehydration because the fish they hunt provide them fresh water.

"People just want to see the dolphins up close," she said. "They don't really think how it might really be affecting the dolphins."

Meet three Hilton Head dolphins with injuries from human contact.

Roly Poly

Leipold, who also is known as the Mermaid of Hilton Head, said she first started seeing Roly Poly in the area when the dolphin was less than a year old.

At that point, Roly Poly was already missing her dorsal fin — which dolphins use for balance — and would swim by flopping around a lot, Leipold said.

Roly Poly is now 2-3 years old.

Leipold believes Roly Poly was injured by a boat propeller.

"She seems to have developed those muscles enough to swim," Leipold said. "She's just a survivor."

roly poly.jpg
Roly Poly is a young Hilton Head dolphin with a missing dolphin fin believed to have been injured by a boat propeller. Nina Leipold Submitted


Chopper, a female dolphin in her 20s, got her name because her own dorsal fin "is pretty messed up," Leipold explained.

Her injury is believed to be from a boat propeller.

Leipold said Chopper used to approach boats begging for food, but stopped once she had a baby — the baby is now 3-4 years old is is known locally as Rowdy.

The duo is often seen in Calibogue Sound.


Nick, a 35- to 40-year-old male dolphin who swims up to boats in Broad Creek with his mouth open, is recognized locally by the nick in his dorsal fin.

"Nick is a chronic beggar," Leipold said. "I've never seen him hunt on his own."

Leipold said Nick is not safe about his begging either. He comes up right on the propeller.

Katharine Hudson and her husband were sailing on Habersham Creek in Beaufort when a lively group of dolphins surrounded their small sailboat.

Helping dolphins

How can people help dolphins thrive in Hilton Head's waters?

Give them space, Leipold said.

If you are fishing, she suggests hiding the fishing rods when dolphins approach.

"Anything you can do to discourage them from thinking you are entertaining would be helpful," she said.

Bill Roettger captured this video of a 'playful' dolphin while fishing with his grandson on the Wando River in South Carolina. But biologists say its behavior is problematic and suggests its been fed by humans before — which is a federal offense.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its marine life viewing guidelines, recommends dolphin-watchers stay at least 50 yards away from them.

Among the other guidelines:

  • Limit your viewing time to 30 minutes or less.

  • If approached, put your vessel's engine in neutral, allow the animal to pass and move away slowly.

  • Avoid excessive vessel speed or sudden changes in speed or direction.

  • Never pursue or follow marine wildlife.

Hilton Head Island resident Catherine Pinto was cruising along Broad Creek on her boyfriend Capt. Matt Everhard's charter boat the Honey B. on Saturday, June 3, 2017, when they came across "Nic" the dolphin. Pinto's dog Lucy was excited by the en

About 170 dolphins live in the Hilton Head area year-round and 400 to 500 vacation here.

"It's a good place to be a dolphin," said Leipold.