Untamed Lowcountry

Dolphins take vacations, too: 6 things to know about Hilton Head dolphins

It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a tourist and local on Hilton Head Island.

The same goes for dolphins.

You have to know what you’re looking for.

It’s true. There are vacationing dolphins and dolphins who live here year-round.

Like human tourists, vacationing dolphins behave differently, hang out in different areas and aren’t as well-known around these parts.

Here’s six things you probably didn’t know about our local dolphins:

1) There are more vacationing dolphins than residential ones.

“We have about 200 residential dolphins that are here year-round and around 400 that vacation here,” Nina Leipold, a local dolphin tour guide who started training with the animals in 2008, said.

Leipold said the mammals aren’t tagged, so it’s hard to track where they come from or how long they stick around.

“I’m not sure how long the vacationers stay here, but my best guess is that they are just passing through. They don’t seem to hang out very long,” she said.

2. They’re friendlier. Really. And their behavior is unique.

The big difference between vacationers and locals is the size of the pod they travel in, Leipold said.

“Our residential dolphins are more comfortable in smaller groups, so when we see one or two at a time, they are most likely local,” she said. “Our vacationer dolphins — or migratory dolphins — are always in larger pods of at least 10, sometimes 20 or more.”

Another characteristic that separates locals from residents is their behavior.

Local dolphins are, like their human counterparts, much friendlier.

“Local dolphins are definitely more comfortable around boats and likely to approach them,” Leipold said.

3. Locals party together once a day.

Lowcountry dolphins are known for strandfeeding — a unique hunting technique in which they work in groups to capture prey. They are the only dolphins in the world known to hunt this way, and they do it once a day during low tide. Leipold said this is the only time local dolphins will be seen in larger groups.

“They strandfeed in groups of five to 10. It’s a learned behavior and a developed skill,” Leipold said.

4. Some of our local dolphins remember the days when feeding them was legal.

“Dolphins old enough to remember when it was legal to feed them will still beg.” Leipold said. “Dolphins have excellent memories.”

Hilton Head has a few dolphins who are so known for their friendliness around humans.

They even have names.

Like Nick — a 35- to 40-year-old-male who hangs out in the Palmetto Bay area around Bull Island and is often seen dancing, leaping and begging around fishing and rental boats.

“He knows the boats to go after that might feed him,” Leipold said. “Encouraging dolphins to come close to boats is bad news. We can guess (that’s how) how Nick got the nick in his dorsal fin.”

Megan McLaughlin, captain and owner of Island Time Charters, has been hosting dolphin charters on the island for years. She said veteran dolphins like Nick and Gary — an older male dolphin who is also often seen begging around Hilton Head — are selective in the boats they pursue.

“Nick knows not to go to my boat to beg,” she said.

5. You can identify a dolphin by its fin.

Just like humans, you can tell how old dolphins are by their teeth and the number of wrinkles on their face.


Meet Cheerio - famous local HHI dolphin #livingmychildhooddream

A video posted by Mandy Matney (@mandy_matney) on

McLaughlin and Leipold say, a lot of times, tour guides name the younger dolphins, and the names just catch on.

“We kind of name the younger ones ourselves and the names catch on, and they are identified by their dorsal fins,” Leipold said.

“Every dorsal fin is different, like a human fingerprint.”

6. There isn’t a trick to finding dolphins.

McLaughlin and Leipold agree: There is no real trick to seeing dolphins around Hilton Head. Some of them have fairly routine behaviors. Like Stu, a teenage dolphin, who is often seen feeding near the salt marsh near the Cross Island Parkway in Palmetto Bay.

“It’s just a matter of looking at the right place and right time,” Leipold said.

Mandy Matney: 843-706-8147, @MandyMatney

Meet Hilton Head locals

▪  Nick: A 35- to 40-year-old-male with a nick on his dorsal fin

▪  Stu: A mid-teens male with a shark-like dorsal fin

▪  Cheerio: A 8- to 12-year-old-female with 4 scratch (“rake”) marks on the right side of her face

▪  Gary: A 35- to 40-year-old male

▪  Chopper: A female in her early to mid-20s who is missing the upper half of her dorsal fin

▪  Rowdy: A 1-year-old who is Chopper’s baby and is always seen with Chopper