By LINZIE JANIS and MARY COMPTON
A group of dolphins living exclusively in the waters off the Carolinas and Georgia have an unusual, yet ingenious, way of capturing their prey — they force them up on shore.
Dubbed the Seabrook Island gang, these bottlenose dolphins will try to find schools of fish, such as mullet, and use their echolocation to confuse them. Then they actually beach themselves in order to eat.
National Geographic’s director of photography Scott Snider was part of a team that captured these dolphins’ strange feeding pattern while filming the documentary, “Secret Life of Predators.”
“They’re constantly echolocating and hunting and trying to find these schools of mullet. And when they do, they’ll start to work them up,” Snider told “Nightline.” “Once they get them right where they want them on just the right stretch of beach, there’s a vocal cue and they make a sound and they all rush at the same time.”
“They all make this bow wave and it throws and crashes and breaks these mullet up on the beach,” he continued. “Then they lay there on their sides, mouths open, waiting, trying to catch these mullet that are flopping back down.”
Right before they beach themselves, the dolphins make a “strong” noise, Snider said.
“You’ll hear a lot of clicks and whistles while they’re shoring up the fish,” he said. “Then all of the sudden there’s a strong vocalization — a much louder noise — right before they’re going to strand, switching a half a second to a second every single time.”
The feasting rewards may be big for the dolphin but so are the risks. The creatures weigh roughly 400 pounds, so these meals, if not expertly executed, could turn into suicide missions.
“If they sit up there too long they can crush internal organs, they can burn,” Snider said. “A lot of bad things can happen.”
Other onshore dangers include oyster shells. Like giant shards of glass, the sharp shells can slice open a dolphin’s rubbery skin. Another danger is people.
“It’s great as far as a draw and awareness of dolphins and how amazing they are — all of that is good,” Snider said. But “if there’s a line of people 50 on the beach, they’re nervous about stranding and won’t strand. It definitely affects their behavior.”
Dolphins are often thought of as friendly, innocent, almost cuddly creatures of the sea, but biologists say we should see these mammals as the cunning and ruthless hunters they really are.
“They need to make a living, they’re predators, and they are good at it,” Snider said. “They’re just like lions or tigers or anything else for their niche.”