By Theresa Stratford for The Island Connection
For four seasons now, dolphin educators have been present at Captain Sam’s Spit on both the Kiawah Island and Seabrook Island sides to help teach visitors and locals about the unique characteristics of dolphin strand feeding. These educators are a part of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, which is led by Lauren Rust, founder and executive director. The purpose of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network is to monitor and study the dolphins in the Charleston area, respond to stranded marine mammals and participate in dolphin education programs and outreach. “Respect the locals” is their slogan, and educating people about what that means is their mission. Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network also collects valuable data about the Lowcountry’s marine mammal population and their behaviors. Rust explained that on Seabrook Island alone, they will see between 75 to 100 people maximum during a four-hour period around low tide. She said that 2020 was actually their busiest year.
“We interacted with 3,000 people that year and spent 660 hours on the beach. There were 722 dolphin sightings.” Captain Sam’s Spit area on Seabrook Island is a popular place for dolphin strand feeding.
Volunteers and educators are set up there between May and December. The unique behavior of strand feeding does have seasonal characteristics to it. Rust said, “The mullet fish drop off a bit in the winter. There are a few dolphins that will still stand to feed some in the winter, but not many. Plus the amount of people educating on the beach drops off as well.”
They are funded by local governments, programs and donations. As they educate, they also have to correct many behaviors. For example, Rust said that some people will try to swim with the dolphins, feed them or even throw rocks at them. “Dolphins can get disrupted, but our primary goal is education, not policing. I want people to know we are approachable, we just want people to keep a distance from the dolphins.” At the Seabrook Island Town Council meeting on Aug. 24, Council Member Jeri Finke announced that the Community Promotion Grants Committee awarded the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network with $750 to use for signage in various locations throughout Seabrook Island for education purposes. Rust will work with the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association and Seabrook Island Town Administrator Joe Cronin on getting the design of the signs approved, including size and locations and are set to be up by the end of the year. Finke noted that the signs will include educational information on marine mammals in the area, specifically dolphins and sea turtles. Volunteers and educators from the Lowcountry Mammal Network are set up year-round on the Kiawah Island side of Captain Sam’s Spit. Rust said they are always looking for more volunteers to help educate beachgoers about the behaviors of local marine mammals. To volunteer with the educators on Seabrook Island at Captain Sam’s Spit, visit lmmn.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network website, lmmn.org, “The Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network (LMMN) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit focused on protecting marine mammals (dolphins, whales, and seals) in South Carolina waters. The Lowcountry is home to approximately 350 year-round ‘resident’ dolphins. These mammals rely on clean, safe and quiet water to hunt, socialize and rear young. Through collaboration with the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SCMMSN) administered by Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network hopes to increase awareness about marine mammals in coastal South Carolina, educate the general public on federal regulations and foster young stewards in ways to protect both marine mammals and their environment.”