Updated: Feb 28
In short, swimming with dolphins in Hilton Head cannot be done. One of the best things about Hilton Head Island is that there are no captive dolphin facilities or dolphin shows anywhere around. In fact, it is illegal to have dolphins in captivity for these swim with dolphins programs and/or dolphin shows in the entire state of South Carolina.
Bottlenose dolphins are highly intelligent and if you want to see them up close and personal in Hilton Head Island, then you need to go out on a boat tour and see them in the wild - the way they are meant to be. Dolphin tours are one of the best ways to see bottlenose dolphins in the wild, especially in Hilton Head Island.
Bottlenose dolphins have complex social structures and this is very evident in Hilton Head Island. We have a pod in Broad Creek, a pod in Calibogue Sound, and a few other pods scattered around the island. Each pod has their own language, and while most of the local dolphins can understand and communicate with other local pods that aren’t their own, when we get traveling pods to the area, the communication between them and the local dolphins becomes blurred.
These social structures are not honored in captivity so when you are swimming with dolphins in a tank or a pen, that smiling dolphin who was just commanded to give you a kiss has most likely been separated from his or her family and friends. You may have just kissed a dolphin who is isolated and is not even able to communicate with the other dolphins in his or her pool.
Dolphins in these swim with dolphins programs also do not get to exhibit natural behaviors. Our wild dolphins in Hilton Head Island swim miles upon miles every day. They get to explore new environments whenever they want, and they get to tangle with interesting sea life on occasion. (Dolphins think sand dollars are interesting, too!)
Our bottlenose dolphins in Hilton Head Island exhibit a behavior rarely found anywhere else in the world. They strand feed! Dolphin strand feeding is when a group of adult dolphins coordinate a strand on the plus mud, creating a huge wave and washing the fish up onto the shore. They eat the fish they have pushed out of the water, then wiggle back into the water. Young dolphins do not strand feed as dolphin strand feeding is something that needs to be taught and practice makes perfect.
Water visibility in Hilton Head Island is very low, which means you can’t see anything underwater. This is why SCUBA and snorkeling excursions are not offered anywhere on the island. This is also why our dolphin population has one up on any potential predators. They have echolocation, so they can see with sound, which means murky water won’t be slowing them down any time soon!
Our Dolphin Experience Boat Tour brings you to the bottlenose dolphins in a way that is up close and personal, while still being respectful of them as wild animals. It is illegal to harass the dolphins, which means approaching them, and following them. We always keep this in mind during our dolphin watch. We let the dolphins tell us when they want to interact and never force interaction like they do in those swim with dolphins programs.
Some people are curious about how Mermaid Nina swims with dolphins. Curiosity always accompanies high intelligence levels. Our bottlenose dolphins are very curious and will often swim up to Mermaid Nina in an attempt to understand what she is, however Mermaid Nina never approaches them. This is how she has earned their trust. She never swims towards them. If they swim towards her, she becomes very still and allows them to investigate with their echolocation.
Our bottlenose dolphins have also adopted Mermaid Nina as a pod member of sorts. They will swim circles around her when there is a large shark in the water. They can become very protective, and while interaction with them is kept to a minimal whenever possible, it is always nice to have the best security guards in the sea looking out for you.
One of the biggest problems our wild dolphins face in Hilton Head is lack of respect from other dolphin tours. It is pretty typical of the common dolphin cruise to harass our local dolphins, get very close to them, and then follow them. To make it worse, a lot of tourists rent boats to spend a day out on Broad Creek or Calibogue Sound and have no idea what to do when they see a dolphin up close.
Unfortunately, it is a common reaction for people to feed the dolphins. This seems like a nice gesture, but in fact, it is just as bad as supporting a swim with dolphins program. Feeding our bottlenose dolphins is highly illegal and this law is strictly enforced by DNR. Consequences include up to a $20,000 fine and jail time.
This is because feeding dolphins is very bad for their health. Most people are not properly educated on the dietary needs of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and do not offer them food according to their nutritious needs. In addition to this, feeding them encourages them to come close to boats and associate boats with food, which can result in dangerous, sometimes fatal propellor injuries. As if that isn’t enough, humans can also transmit diseases to dolphins as there are a lot of commonalities between our immune systems and theirs.
So, if you find yourself wanting to swim with dolphins, you may want to give your conscious a once over. Just like the people who take sand dollars from their ocean homes, which ends in sand dollar fatality, swimming with dolphins is very selfish. Captive dolphins suffer every day so they can provide entertainment for you and your family for an hour.
Statistics show that 50% of captive dolphins are dead by the age of 7 due to high stress levels. You would be stressed, too, if you were trapped with a bunch of strangers who don’t speak your language, separated from your family, and forced to associate strange hand signals with actions which are not natural to you just so you can eat.
If you want to see Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins and learn about them, swim with dolphins programs are not the answer. Dolphin tours, like our Dolphin Experience Boat Tour, that practice responsible dolphin watching is the best, most respectful way to see them. Hilton Head Island had around 170 local dolphins and around 400 Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins who pass through the area (mostly found in Calibogue Sound), so there is never a shortage of dolphin sightings here.
Book your Dolphin Experience Boat Tour with us so you can learn about these amazing animals, see them in their natural environments, and if you’re lucky even observe a strand feed. Swimming with dolphins is outdated and being seen by many as abuse. Rise above the abuse. Go out on a dolphin cruise with us!