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written by
Stephanie Hunt

Dancers in the Deep

photographs by
Provided

Volume: 34

Across cultures and across the centuries, dolphins have been revered as mysterious marvels. They are borderless, aquatic ambassadors breaking through from the unseen underwater world into ours. Swimmers of power and grace, they command the depths as they command the air, arcing up with effortless finesse.

Kiawah’s winding waterways enthrall in their own right, shimmering ribbons of rivers and tidal creeks that weave through the marsh, the sun glinting off gentle ripples. Our eye is drawn here, to these alluring vistas where water meets reed and opens to the sky. And then the surface breaks. A pearly gray being, slick and sleek, curls up from below, arching over and back down. A waterborne ballet. There’s the beast’s quick breath, then another deep dive. And our quick breath, too—a gasp of wonder. Even if we’ve seen dolphins a million times, their surfacing elicits a shudder of awe.

Across cultures and across the centuries, dolphins have been revered as mysterious marvels. They are borderless, aquatic ambassadors breaking through from the unseen underwater world into ours. Swimmers of power and grace, they command the depths as they command the air, arcing up with effortless finesse. Native Americans viewed them as messengers of the Great Spirit, and the ancient Greeks revered them as an incarnation of Poseidon, god of the sea. Mythic and majestic, dolphins hold sway in our psyche as shamanic guides, and they hold a seat in the heavens too, emblazoned across the night sky as the constellation Delphinus. 

It’s no surprise that humans feel such an affinity with these mammals. From Flipper’s rise to television fame in the 1960s, to today’s bucket-list tourists paying top dollar to “swim with the dolphins,” we crave connection with these remarkable creatures. With their perpetual smile, so coy and cute, and their penetrating eyes, dolphins seem to be on our wavelength. We perceive them as friendly and knowing, as if they have something to tell us us, some secret of the deep to share. 

“Their whistles and clicks and squeals seemed to me like a liquid symphony, a communiqué from another realm, a galaxy of meaning conveyed in a language that defied translation,” writes Susan Casey in her book Voices of the Ocean. And according to marine biologists, dolphins have plenty to tell us. 

As apex predators, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins—the species native to Kiawah’s waters and our region’s most common marine mammal—are a sentinel species, which means they serve as a barometer and bellwether of the marine ecosystem health. If toxins are present in the food chain, they show up in dolphins, which is why national and local scientists and representatives of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitor and study the local dolphin population. 

In other words, we are connected with these creatures. Beyond the way their cuteness tugs at our heartstrings, their health is an indicator of our own. “As a sentinel species, dolphins help gauge the overall health of our oceans. If wild dolphins aren’t doing well, it could also indicate future impacts to ocean health and even our own health,” says Dr. Gregory Bossart, Chief Veterinary Officer at Georgia Aquarium and part of a team that has done longitudinal studies of our Charleston-area dolphins, every few years going out to tag and measure them and take blood samples. The scientists are looking for changes in their immune and endocrine systems, among other things, and comparing data to that of captive dolphins, to see how changes in the environment impact dolphin health. 

Indeed, we have our own resident dolphins, Charleston’s “estuarine stock,” as the NOAA Fisheries’ identifies them. The Tursiops truncatus you see in the Kiawah River or surfing at the beach are not just migratory dolphins “from off” popping in to say hello. They are part of our local population of three hundred or so that live year-round in Lowcountry waters, where five rivers and a large harbor all lead to the Atlantic, and our marshes, inlets, and waterways make for optimal feeding and breeding grounds. 

And they are a special lot. Some of the dolphins off Kiawah display a rare and dramatic trick called strand feeding. “Kiawah is one of the few places in the world where dolphins are known to strand feed, which is a unique learned behavior, taught by mothers to their offspring,” says Lauren Rust, executive director of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network (LMMN), a nonprofit that protects marine mammals through science, education, and outreach. When dolphins strand feed, they work together to herd mullet or other small fish, and then, in a meticulously choreographed split second, they create a wave with a flip of their powerful tails to wash the fish on shore. Sometimes these dolphins will even tail slap to stun the fish first. Then they hoist their 400-pound bodies on to the riverbank to eat their catch. 

It’s a stunning show, to be sure, but this unique feeding strategy is actually quite risky. “Dolphins expend a great deal of energy to secure this food source, and they make themselves vulnerable,” Rust explains. Which is why one of LMMN’s chief initiatives is educating the public about keeping their distance, which is not just polite respect of wildlife, but federal law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (passed in 1972 to protect dolphins, manatees, polar bears, seals, sea lions, sea otters, walruses, and whales) requires that people and boaters stay at least fifty yards away from wild dolphins in the water and keep at least ten yards distance from shore.   

People who approach the dolphins on the shore or in a boat, hoping to get a close-up photo, can disturb and stress the animals. “Strand-feeding dolphins might leave instead of feed, which then impacts their daily energy budget—the amount of energy they allocate for feeding, traveling, and resting,” Rust explains. And if eager onlookers interrupt their feeding, the dolphins might break the generational transmission of this clever learned behavior. 

Rust’s work to study and protect the strand feeding dolphins is supported by a grant from the Town of Kiawah Island and carried out with the assistance of trained volunteers who patrol the waterway between Kiawah and Seabrook, making sure people understand the law and respect the animals. “We’re a bridge between the hard-core scientists and the community, trying to create awareness about issues facing marine mammals,” says Rust. In addition to taking notes and photo-identifying resident dolphins, Rust and her team approach beachgoers to create awareness and reduce incidents of human interaction. 

To ensure Kiawah will always have a resident population of such mesmerizing, captivating creatures we must care for the ones we have—to give them room, to keep their waters clean and healthy, and to listen for that wondrous damp exhale rising from below, and bask in their glory. — S.H.

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