|IN A NUTSHELL: Every day at low tide, South Carolina bottlenose dolphins exhibit amazingly effective teamwork to catch their dinner. We can learn from their amazing display.
I had the pleasure of spending last weekend on Seabrook Island, South Carolina, a very relaxed locale for enjoying the beach and natural surroundings. This is a very tidal region, and the daily marsh to ocean to marsh flow is a key element of the rhythm of life. While I was there, low tide was late afternoon, and it was a great time to chill on a cruiser bike, riding the beach on the hardpacked sand.
My normal routine was to ride from Privateer Creek on the southern tip of Seabrook up to Captain Sam”s Inlet which separates Seabrook from Kiawah Isle to the northeast. Although I grew up on the beach and have been a lifelong “ocean guy”, I witnessed something amazing there that I had never seen before in my life, a pod of bottlenose dolphins “Strand Feeding” in the cut. You, like I, may have seen something similar with killer whales on Discovery Channel or National Geographic, but I had never witnessed this in person, and it totally blew me away.
A pod of 5 dolphins cruised through the tidal creek until they found a school of finger mullet or other suitable bait, and then began to circle the school in ever tighter circles, effectively trapping and compressing the school into a tight and tasty mass. Then they created a powerful bow wave that would rush the prey literally onto the bank of the creek, and 3 to 5 of the dolphins would actually come all the way out of the water onto the bank and devour as many fish as they could into their waiting mouths! They would then wriggle back into the water, cruise around until they found another school of fish, and repeat the process. Lather, rinse, repeat. I went back on two subsequent afternoons on a low-to-incoming tide and they were going after it again. I watched them feed and they would beach themselves about every 10 minutes. A really memorable and amazing show.
Upon returning, I did a little research and learned a few facts about this behaviour:
- It is apparently a learned behaviour, not instinctual, and young calves pick it up by observing their mother.
- Bottlenose dolphin in Mexico and Portgual have also been observed to strand feed, but only the dolphin in a 100 mile stretch of South Carolina and Georgia strand feed daily.
- No one knows 100% why, but the dolphin ALWAYS land on their right sides when they come up on the bank. (It is true that their heart’s are on the left side like ours, which may have something to do with it.) It actually looks like a synchronized trick from Sea World. Due to the abrasiveness of the mud banks, their teeth on the right sides of their jaws get worn down from the repeated beachings.
- Dolphins have excellent out of water vision and have no problem catching the fish as they flop around on the bank.
We captured a few cell phone photos, and I’ve also included some other shots and a video from around the web to help you visualize this amazing behavior. As a leader I was struck by several factors of their teamwork:
- There was no obvious leader, and they appeared to operate effortlessly as a cohesive unit.
- They moved from one school of fish to the next quickly, and were able to instantly gain consensus about what opportunity to work on.
- I’m sure they communicated somehow, but there was definitely a whole lot of action and not much talk.
- They appeared to rotate through and let every pod member take a turn at grabbing some of the glory.
- Each team member was an impressive thing of beauty of pure muscle and brains and was a master at what they did.
If you ever have a chance to make it to the South Carolina Low Country coast, make sure you make it out the the beach for the 90 minutes around low tide. Take your camera!! If you don’t get the chance to witness this in person, see how effectively you can model the dolphins’ frictionlessly productive teamwork in your endeavors.