Sitting in a small boat navigating the waters off Hilton Head Island, you watch as groups of dolphins glide past.
The sun is shining. A gentle breeze cuts through the air as you travel through the marshes of Broad Creek out to Calibogue Sound. You see a mother osprey return to the nest, shredding fish to feed to her chicks. She'll start teaching them to fly in a couple of weeks. Great blue herons, ruddy turnstones, oyster catchers and pelicans coast overhead or wade along the marsh banks.
It's hard to imagine a better way to see the salt marshes and the wildlife along the Lowcountry coast. On a dolphin watching and beachcombing excursion with Island Explorer of Hilton Head Island, a three-hour tour becomes a lesson in ecology, a chance to gather shells from a low-tide shoal and a close-up view of dolphins in their natural habitat.
Capt. Jim Harkins is the owner and operator of Island Explorer and was our guide on this morning's trip. He has been providing various water sports activities around Hilton Head since 1978, and he enthusiastically shares his knowledge of the Lowcountry‘s landscape. He's lived around the world, in places like Nepal and Hawaii, "but what you look at out here is hard to beat," he said as the boat cruised through Broad Creek.
He's not kidding.
From watching the light reflect off the spartina grass to catching a glimpse of the grand mansions of Hilton Head, the views seem to get better around every turn.
Along with the fantastic scenery, the trip offers a chance to learn about the vibrant ecosystem of the Lowcountry salt marsh. Harkins is a masterful teacher, and it's clear he loves what he is doing -- and the creatures he is talking about. Especially those bottle-nosed dolphins.
"There are so many things they can do that I wish I could do," he said. "Like they don't have to sleep. Wouldn‘t that be great?"
Island Explorer follows the Dolphin Smart guidelines for responsible dolphin viewing, which means you watch the dolphins in their natural homes with no interference. Wild dolphins should never be fed by humans.
At a stop on "Vanishing Island" (it's actually a sandbar between Hilton Head and Daufuskie Island that vanishes at high tide twice a day), we spent some time wandering a deserted beach. The visit offered the opportunity to find shells and sand dollars -- more than you could count -- along with viewing horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, starfish, crabs, sea cucumbers and other sea life.
"It's a virtual city going on underneath us," Harkins said. "...Just waiting for the tide to come back in."
After that we explored the narrow creeks near Bull Island, where we were able to catch some dolphins strand feeding. That's when dolphin push small fish up onto the muddy banks, where the dolphins can easily eat their catch. The birds come along later for easy pickings of what the dolphins didn't eat.
In between we learned about the nutrient-rich marsh water ("a bowl of life soup," is how Harkins described it), along with the signature spartina grass that serves as the base of the marsh's food chain.
Island Explorer offers three boats operated by six captains, each with many years of experience navigating the waters around Hilton Head and all with good stories to tell.
So climb aboard. And don't forget your camera.
The migratory dolphins stay in the Hilton Head area from mid-April into November, then head south looking for warmer water. Some dolphins -- Harkins estimates about 200 -- stay here through the winter.
Newborn dolphins are almost black with rings down their body that eventually disappear. They swim erratically beside their mothers. ("I always thought if you look up ‘frisky' in the dictionary there should be a picture of a baby dolphin," Harkins said.) The calves stay with their mothers for about five years; female babies might stay with their moms for life.
Female dolphins give birth every two to three years, after an 11-month gestation period. The babies nurse for about a year and a half to two years.
Dolphins surface every 15 to 20 seconds to clear their blow holes with a burst of air.
Dolphins have particularly good eyesight, so when they come out of the water and it feels like they are looking at you -- they probably are.