The Best Ways to See Them
One of the most common questions we get is about dolphins and where to find them. They populate our saltwater estuaries and we frequently see them on our tours. Of the "charismatic megafauna" that inhabit our creeks, dolphins are the most gregarious and curious about humans. We always keep a respectful distance from pods, but they will often surface alongside our kayaks, so close that you can hear them breathe. And we have to say, we've been doing this for 25 years and it never gets old.
So what's the best way to see them? First, you will need to be on a saltwater tour, so make sure that you select a tour from one our on-water locations on Shem Creek, Folly or the Isle of Palms, or take a full-day expedition to a barrier island like Capers or Bulls.
Second, we suggest that you set out with a guide. Dolphins are wild animals and we can't guarantee an appearance, but if you take a tour with a naturalist, they can get you in the right spot at the right time to increase your chances.
Here are some of the best tours for seeing dolphins:
FOLLY CREEK KAYAK TOUR. Although its just a short drive from downtown Charleston, the network of creeks behind Folly Island are alive with fish, oysters, shrimp, crabs, hammerhead sharks and other inhabitants of the salt marsh. Dolphins love to feed in this 24-hour-all-you-can-eat buffet and they live and breed in this ecosystem. The dolphins here demonstrate strand-feeding, a learned behavior where they push fish onto sandy shores and eat their catch while they are temporarily beached. It is an intense experience if you get the privilege to see this in action.
SHEM CREEK KAYAK TOUR. While not as wild as the ecosystem at our Folly Creek Outpost, Shem Creek is a dolphin-rich waterway. The dolphins here have adapted to the human interaction and hang around the shrimp boats when they come back to the dock. Kayaking from this location gives you incredible wildlife viewing opportunities (Crab Bank bird rookery is at the mouth of the creek) coupled with iconic views of downtown Charleston, Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney.
ISLE OF PALMS KAYAK TOUR. Located at the Isle of Palms Marina, this outpost gives us access to the start of the longest stretch of undeveloped shoreline on the Eastern Seaboard. The estuarine dolphins that we see at Folly and Shem Creek can be found here, and occasionally larger pelagic (ocean-dwelling) dolphins come in to mingle and feed. These pods can be very large (50 dolphins or more) and very curious.
BULLS ISLAND FERRY. The route that the ferry takes to Bulls Island is within a 66,000 acre wildlife refuge, and of that 21,000 acres are Class 1 Wilderness. This designation means that you are traveling within some of the cleanest air and water in the United States with no signs of man in sight. Dolphins are protected within this ecosystem and they are frequently seen along the way to Bulls Island. Whenever the captain spots a dolphin, we slow down or stop the boat to take a few minutes to observe the dolphins as they move through the creeks. This ecotour combines a 30-minute boat tour with a self-guided island exploration-- and it's one of the best things Coastal Expeditions offers.
PRIVATE BOAT CHARTERS. It may seem like a lot to charter an entire boat, but it can be as little as $40 a person to reserve a captain and get out on a dolphin-watching tour. Your naturalist captain will take you on an adventure in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge or out into the Charleston Harbor for an education in the wildlife and history that makes Charleston extraordinary.
Remember, if you are on a saltwater excursion, you have a pretty good chance of seeing Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Just call or email and let us know that's what you are looking for and we'll help you choose the right adventure!