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Rare feeding technique of local dolphins under increased threat

By Chris Hauffchauff@abcnews4.com

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (WCIV) -- As temperatures increase this spring, thousands of people will head back to the coast. Here in the Lowcountry those trips are often accompanied by the spotting of a native friend, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.

Usually you can see the mammal with relative ease near places like Mount Pleasant's Shem Creek or off the coast of barrier islands like Kiawah or Seabrook. However, according to a local biologist, the frequency of their visits could be jeopardized by development.

"I've literally made a living over the past 12 years taking people to see dolphins," said Captain Chad Hayes.

Hayes has studied dolphins for the past 20 years. The obsession first started as a way to help boost tours he guided, and then became his life when he discovered a rare feeding habit -- strand feeding.

"A group of dolphins work a school of fish out of deep water and work them up and down a bank to concentrate them," Hayes said. "Once they have the school of fish concentrated, they will then turn side-by-side, facing the bank and swim simultaneously, creating a wave that throws the fish out of water onto dry land."

The dolphins then swim up on their right side onto the bank and feast on as many fish as they can. Afterwards, they slide back into the water and start all over again.

The strand feeding phenomenon has led to some of the most impressive and visual tours in the country, and for a while, Captain Hayes was cashing in. However, as time went by he noticed the feeding activity started to decrease.

"People were venturing out to the areas to try to witness the dolphins feeding," he said.

With further study Captain Hayes discovered one of the last things a dolphin does before it strand feeds is check out its surroundings.

"It will stick its head out of the water and look at the bank and see if it's clear or not," Hayes said.

Lately the bank hasn't been clear. As more people learn about the extremely rare and local feeding technique, they want to see it. Because of the demand, other companies have begun offering tours, and those living close to the feeding areas are often hanging out for hours near the bank hoping to get a glimpse. That added pressure sometimes inhibits normal behavior.

Captain Hayes feels partly responsible for the extra attention, and he has now devoted much of his time to reversing what has been done.

"We don't want to spend too much time or interfere too much that we begin to change their natural behavior," he said.

Word of the strand feeding technique has spread fast. National Geographic did a piece on it.

In addition to the extra pressure from spectators, local dolphins are also being threatened by development.

On Kiawah Island, a building permit for a 73-foot walkway was granted to the Kiawah Development Partners last December. Once completed, it may feature two floating docks that will sit just a few feet from areas were dolphins are known to feed. {}The project, which has been put on hold following a request by the Coastal Conservation League, is the type of change Hayes fears. He's worried it may push the Atlantic bottlednose dolphin away from the Lowcountry, or even worse, cause the animal to starve. Kiawah Development Partners think otherwise. {}Representatives of the company told ABC News 4 their goal is to make the least amount of impact on the environment. According to Mike Touhill, a spokesperson for the Kiawah Development Partners, the two floating docks will not endanger local strand feeding.{}"We are confident it will be done responsibly," Touhill said. {}"We are concerned about the environment but haven't seen adverse effects in 25 years."{}Though Captain Chad Hayes is ambitious when it comes to helping the local dolphin population, he's also realistic. The more than a decade-long captain knows Charleston will continue to expand. He says he just wants it to expand while coexisting with something he considers just as special as any local artifact -- the Charleston dolphin.

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