The dolphin watcher: Biologist tour guide to publish behavior findings

A dolphin breaks the surface of the Kiawah River. An effort has been made to prevent boat strikes on dolphins. Buy this photo

KIAWAH ISLAND — Boat strikes kill dolphins. It’s that simple. And people are crowding in on them.

The series

This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and the ocean off the Lowcountry are changing, and what it means for a region where people have made a life and living for generations in tune with the sea.MULTIMEDIATo see more photos and a video, go to postand courier.com/multimedia

Preventing both might just come down to the citizen science of people like Chad Hayes.

More about dolphins

FEEDING TECHNIQUESLowcountry Dolphin Alliance founder Chad Hayes has observed three hunting techniques used by dolphins in the Kiawah River. Techniques sometimes are used together.Strand feeding: A small group of dolphins circles a fish school until the fish are corralled, then drives the fish onto a nearby bank and leap after them to eat. The dolphin leap in a row like a football team line.Pinwheeling: A dolphin swims back and forth along the bank in a semi-circle to corral fish tightly before moving in to feed.Shock feeding or “tailwhacking”: Dolphins turn sideways and pound their tails on the surface to stun the fish below, then feed.AVOID STRIKESRecommendations for handling boats around dolphins, sea turtles or manatees:Slow down when a sea creature is observed, and in shallow or narrow areas at low tide.Wear polarized sunglasses for better visibility.Look for dorsal fins, snouts or breath blow-outs.Don’t feed or interfere with dolphins or other animals (it’s illegal).

For 10 years now, Hayes has compiled observations of a dolphin pod in the Kiawah River, learning behaviors that are distinct to the pod, and more complex than “official” science has documented. He’s formed a nonprofit alliance to publish those findings.

Avoiding dolphin strikes

Recommendations for handling boats around dolphins, sea turtles or manatees:Slow down when a sea creature is observed, and in shallow or narrow areas at low tide.Wear polarized sunglasses for better visibility.Look for dorsal fins, snouts or breath blow-outs.Don’t feed or interfere with dolphins or other animals (it’s illegal).

Hayes’ thinking is the more that people know about how dolphins behave, the more carefully they will approach them — on sea and on the beaches.

“People need to learn about these animals because they are unique animals. They are an asset

to the Lowcountry. They behave differently than dolphins to the north, south or west,” Hayes says.

He can tell most of the 23 individuals in the pod by quirks in their dorsal fins and has given them names like Hook and Jagger.

And oddly enough, the dolphins seem to know who he is. They don’t dive from his idling boat like they do from others. They tend to approach.

Sure, you think, Hayes feeds them.

“Never once,” he says adamantly. “Why would I want to feed them when strand feeding is so cool to watch?”

Strand feeding, by the way, is dolphin behavior that is signature to the Lowcountry and coastal Georgia.

A small group of dolphins circles to corral a school of fish, noses up a wave to drive them out of the water, and then leaps onto the bank to feed.

It’s one of those Planet Earth moments that leave people in awe. It happens almost nowhere else but here.

Hayes doesn’t want tourists and too-curious onlookers to crowd it out.

And that’s striking. Because Hayes is compiling his research while running dolphin tours.

The calf
Not long after Hayes started running nature watching trips for Kiawah Island Resort in 2002, two things happened that fascinated him.

He was fishing in the idled boat in November, after the tour season, the only one on the water.

He found himself surrounded by at least 15 dolphins — each, it seemed, surfacing to look over him and the boat.

He had never seen so many at once.

“All I can compare it to is a family reunion,” he says. “I think they basically imprinted me at that time.”

Later, he spotted a dolphin he calls Sera shortly after she gave birth. She nosed the newborn across the stream to the idled boat, so Hayes could have a look.

“She obviously was proud of it. There’s no other explanation,” he says.

Three months later, he saw Sera at the water’s edge, where the calf floated dead. It’s a mother dolphin’s nature to stay alongside her lost calf for a time. But Sera came to the boat again, he said. “The look she had on her face was, ‘Could you please help?’ ”

Hayes, 37, isn’t a doe-eyed tree hugger. He is a sportsman, a trained wildlife biologist and a former S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. He has a direct manner of the “battering ram” fullback he was in school.

The look in Sera’s eye tore him apart.

“I think we’re very egotistical to think we’re the only creatures who can think and feel the way we do,” he says. “Of course, dolphins are going to have emotions. Why else would a mother dolphin push her dead calf around for two weeks?”

A drop in feedings
Dolphins project a lovable quality that Hayes calls “the smile.” There’s something about the seemingly happy curve of their mouths, the intelligent, curious, almost familial light in the eye.

But the animals are wild, voracious predators, more wary of people than we want to believe.

Hayes’ evolving Lowcountry Dolphin Alliance is maybe the most sophisticated of a number of Lowcountry resident efforts underway to protect the animals as more people move in, efforts that include no-wake signs and signs to alert gapers of the federal 50-yards-away protocol for dolphins.

His decade of research might be the most detailed, long-term study of a single pod ever done.

He has seen dolphins teaching young to hunt, dolphins lining up in storm waves at Capt. Sam’s Inlet to surf. He’s found that pairs of males here tend to hang out for their lives in “bachelor pods.”

Not just the dorsals but the antics of dolphins vary from individual to individual. “Buzz,” a gregarious calf, earned his tag because he tends to flit all over the place back and forth from his mother, goosing adults as he passes them.

In the past four years Hayes has documented a disturbing drop in the numbers of strand feedings that take place along the Capt. Sam’s spit, in direct correlation to “exponentially more” people who now crowd in to watch.

Dolphins lift their heads just before driving the fish ashore, to make sure the bank is clear.

When it isn’t, they back off.

You’d think shorthanded public wildlife biologists would seek out information that important. You’d be wrong.

Drawing the line
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agencies managing protected species like the bottlenose dolphin, keep a distance from Hayes. Staffers are aware of his research, they said, but haven’t asked for a look.

There’s a thinly veiled concern that professional dolphin watchers like Hayes are part of the problem, not the solution — crowding the animals instead of leaving them be.

Hayes, who now runs Kiawah Charter Company, tells you frankly he’s out there — tour or not — some 300 days per year.

But he isn’t your usual tour guide.

“I’ve never approached a dolphin. I’ve always put the dolphin’s safety first,” he says. “At times, dolphins have approached me. I’ve been very lucky and pleased they do.”

Along with his training and DNR work, he was a founder of the John’s Island Conservancy, which is using his research to push for 50-yards-away signs along Capt. Sam’s.

But for now, he’s out on his own.

It’s worth pointing out that on a recent trip, four dolphins staged a half dozen strand feedings while Hayes kept the boat off along the far bank. A second dolphin tour boat approached, creeping along the bank where the dolphins fed, and they quit shortly after.

“There’s a fine line between the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things,” Hayes says.

He wants to draw that line.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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