Coastal Life: Strand Feeding Dolphins

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Photo courtesy Amanda Stark

By Gene Brancho | Dolphins are some of the most intelligent, most beautiful and most resourceful members of the marine mammal family and are a daily part of coastal life. They’re quite powerful swimmers and they’re very cunning predators as well. One of the most fascinating ways they feed here in our coastal waters is called ‘strand feeding’.

In an astonishingly synchronized display, a group of up to six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins will launch themselves onto the sand to feast on the prey they just drove ashore.

From a distance, you see only a quick frenzy and a splash, but if you’re lucky enough to be in just the right place you’ll see them bursting out of the water and onto the shore in a perfect alignment. Then they wiggle themselves back into the water and they’re gone just as quickly as they arrived. The water and shore are still, with the exception of shorebirds looking for a free meal.

Dolphins strand feeding photo courtesy Todd Pusser

How they do it

Underwater, small groups of dolphins work together to herd several small fish together into a bait ball and then, forming a tight line, they swim very quickly to create a wave that forces their prey onto shore. Then they simply surge out of the water in unison after the helpless fish-out-of-water.

Strand feeding is some seriously sophisticated hunting that requires lots of teamwork, communication and timing, and it testifies to the ingenuity of dolphins.

It’s pretty amazing.

It’s said to primarily happen only here in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, but it’s been reported in a few other places around the world as well.

Strand feeding is seen quite often on our local waterways and you can find photos and videos of them all over the internet, especially on Facebook.

Of course, the dolphins also risk being stranded if they launch too far onto the sand, but it’s a rarity. The thrashing around and wiggling they do usually allows them to work their way back into the water..with a fuller belly, of course.

Another oddity: Dolphins always strand feed on their right side. Scientists believe it has something to do with how their bodies function internally. Nobody really knows why.

If you ever see this here in the Savannah area, consider yourself lucky. Very lucky.

Strand feeding is a sight to behold.