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Jul 23 2009

View from the water: strand feeding

Strand feeding. Photo by Captain Chad Hayes

Strand feeding. Photo by Captain Chad Hayes

by Captain Chad Hayes

During my childhood in Dillon, SC, experiencing the “Grand Strand” meant taking a trip to nearby Cherry Grove, North Myrtle, or Myrtle Beach. However, upon arriving in Charleston in 1999, the “Grand Strand” quickly took on an entire different meaning.

I was told by seasoned naturalists about a feeding technique commonly used by the dolphins in the area: a technique in which dolphins would throw fish completely out of the water onto dry land, and then follow them onto the land in order to eat the fish they’d stranded. This feeding technique was known as “strand feeding”. I had the opportunity to observe this many times over that first summer. Each time, my curiosity and fascination grew. I wanted to know everything about this strand feeding.

After graduating to a motorboat and leaving the canoes and kayaks behind, I was able to locate the dolphins on a daily basis and observe their behavior. I quickly learned that strand feeding was not some “fly by night” random occurrence that a few dolphins used to catch fish. Oh no, this was a highly calculated assault designed to leave no mullet alive.

The mission typically begins with the dolphins swimming side by side against an outgoing tide, collectively using their sonar to locate schools of mullet swimming with the current. As a school of fish is spotted, the dolphins quickly go into action; breaking formation to create a line or semi-circle to prevent the fish from passing by them to the safety of the open ocean. The dolphins then slowly begin to work the school closer and closer to the bank. The bank they choose is most often hard and sloped down to the water, allowing the dolphins to re-enter the water by simply turning over and rolling down the slope (Though I have seen dolphins strand on a completely flat bank, then pivot from head to tail like an inch worm to re-enter the water, the sloped banks seem to work the best).
Once the school of fish has been safely escorted to a suitable piece of bank, the dolphins herd the school up and down the bank, concentrating them as tightly as possible. This part of the mission can take the longest; often more than an hour, but it seems to be the most important part, because a well formed school means more fish on the bank.

This is often the point at which humans can actually disrupt a strand feeding. While the dolphins are herding the fish up and down the bank, they are checking the bank for obstructions by sticking their heads up and looking. If people get to close or follow the dolphins down the bank, it will make the dolphins uneasy and often cause them to abort the whole feeding effort. In the end, when observing dolphins strand feeding, it is best to stay about twenty feet away from the waters edge, as this will give the dolphins room to operate and the people a front row seat to a sight which they are not likely to forget.

Once the dolphins have concentrated the fish as closely as they can, its time for the grand finale. The dolphins turn and face the bank, positioning themselves beside another dolphin. Then the dolphins swim with all their might up the bank and through the school of fish. As the dolphins rush the bank and a wall of water is created with mullet flying several feet into the air and then down to the bank. The dolphins are right behind, always sliding on their right side (all dolphins are left brain dominant) onto the bank and grabbing as many fish as they can. Marauders such as Pelicans and Great Blue Herons are attracted by the commotion and swoop in to get a free meal off the dolphins’ hard work. After feasting, the dolphins slide back into the water and quickly catch up to the school to try and strand them again before they separate.

After witnessing thousands of strand feeding events, one may think I would grow tired of it. But nothing is further from the truth. Each time I witness it, it’s like the first time; and sharing it with someone who’s never seen it before is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Until next time, take care, and we’ll see you on the water!

Captain Hayes, a South Carolina native, is a seasoned naturalist and fishing guide. A graduate of Presbyterian College with a degree in Biology, he is a former Fisheries biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and host of the “South Carolina Wildlife” television show. His knowledge of local history, ecology, dolphin behavior and fishing techniques will provide hours of enjoyment for you and your family or group. Captain Hayes is USCG licensed and insured. For more information, call the Kiawah Charter Company at 276-1832, visit their website at or email Captain Chad at

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