• A pod of dolphins “strand feeding” by herding fish onshore. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

A ‘wow’ experience on the water

It happened! I finally saw it myself! I had heard about dolphins “strand feeding” for many years now, and tried repeatedly to see it, but like most nature happenings, you cannot just seek and find these things. I’ve been on a number of Amelia River Cruises and some private boats too on Beach Creek, Cumberland Island, where this behavior is often reported, but never saw it. Besides skill and knowing the right tides to follow, there is an element of luck involved. I guess I’ve never been quite lucky enough. But recently on a boat trip with Captain Flip of Oceanbird (www.oceanbird.com), we had just the right combination of low tides, skillful spotting, location and luck. Captain Flip did his homework in advance and suggested that we leave Fernandina Beach at 9:30 a.m. to catch the low tides at Beach Creek before a predicted afternoon storm, but nothing was guaranteed.

It didn’t matter. The morning was beautiful. Jean Taylor, her daughter, Mary, and I boarded the boat at the Egans Creek Marina and off we went down the creek, onto the Amelia River, along the edge of Fort Clinch State Park, then across the channel to Cumberland Island. Within about 15 minutes of leaving the dock, we were cruising up Beach Creek.

Along the way, Mary asked me if there were any roseate spoonbills around – she had never seen one. Well, moments later we saw a pair of spoonbills foraging in a side channel. Perfect for her! Score one for Flip. A bit later, we saw spoonbills feeding beside a bright red crab trap, visible at low tide. A perfect photo op for me too.

Above us, an even brighter pink spoonbill flew by, and then Flip pointed out something else. Two birds were tussling high in the sky. Although they were at a distance from us, they looked to be a bald eagle chasing an osprey. It went on and on, with the larger bird repeatedly harassing the smaller one. We couldn’t see if the osprey had a fish the eagle was trying to get, or if it was just chasing the osprey away from the eagle’s nesting site, since this is, indeed, the start of bald eagle breeding season in our area. No matter what, it was fun to watch.

We also saw a wild horse feeding on marsh grass, a salty food source that limits their life expectancy, but on Cumberland Island, that’s what they eat. Their life may be shorter than most horses, but they roam freely wherever they wish to go, a great trade off if you ask me.

Along the way we saw dolphins here and there, but no real action. Then Flip noticed the behavior of a pod of dolphins near a bend and stopped the boat. And quick as a flash it happened. The dolphin group rushed to the mud bank, grounding themselves momentarily as they attempted to strand a meal of fish. We didn’t see the fish, barely saw the action, but with our cameras at the ready, we caught the scene. The dolphins floundered out of the water on the mud bank, then wriggled back into the water. In seconds it was all over, with nothing else to see but splashes and tail flukes and pectoral fins. Magnificent!

Dolphins are known to catch fish like this along the Carolina and Georgia coasts, and some think it is a learned behavior, taught to youngsters in this area. Elsewhere, where similar shoreline conditions occur in the worldwide distribution of bottlenose dolphins, it is rarely, if ever, reported. Dolphins also use a variety of other group feeding techniques, including making circles of mud or bubbles to trap fish, but mostly chase fish alone. Nothing, though, is more dramatic than seeing these marine mammals flop onshore when strand feeding.

If you want to see this yourself, you need a boat. You can take an Amelia River Cruises (261-9972) scheduled Beach Creek tour, but the tour time does not necessarily coincide with low tide. We went with Captain Flip (753-2339), who can adjust the timing for your best possible chance of catching a strand-fishing episode.

But you also need to be lucky, as I was on this trip. It was worth all these years of waiting!

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