The world’s most abundant marine mammal puts on a lively show around Jekyll
By Candice Dyer
B ottlenose dolphins have upturned mouths beneath their outsize snouts, giving them a perpetual grin befitting their collegiality. These marine mammals socialize in small, ever-changing groups, but they demonstrate an admirable loyalty to each other.
“When a male decides to mate, he brings along a buddy—kind of a wingman—who helps select the female,” says Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Once pregnant, females cluster with other females who are undergoing gestation, or calving, which lasts a year.
Their families are close-knit and their life-spans long—fifty years or more. Calves nurse for three years and stay with their mothers for up to six years while another single female lingers with them, acting as a sort of spinster governess. “They’re beautiful, highly intelligent, inquisitive animals,” says Ben Carswell, director of conservation for the Jekyll Island Authority. They aren’t endangered, but they are federally protected.
Visitors of a certain age recalling a fictional bottlenose dolphin, the intrepid Flipper, might feel tempted to stroke or feed dolphins, but experts caution against extending your hands. “They do bite,” Carswell says.
They also whistle at each other and use echolocation to stalk fish, crabs, and shrimp. Bottlenose dolphins on this part of the coast have a spectacular way of dining out called strand feeding. They herd schools of fish out of the water and onto mud flats and banks of tidal creeks, then gorge, flopped on their sides in a kind of chorus line. “It’s something to see!” says Carswell.
Dolphins can be sighted anywhere around Jekyll, but the observation deck at St. Andrew’s Beach Park is a prime viewing spot. “The best way is to get on the water in a fishing boat, which dolphins trail,” George says. Several Jekyll businesses also offer eco-tours; find them at jekyllisland.com/activities.