A Guide to Dolphin Watching on Hilton Head Island


Everyone loves dolphins, but there’s nothing quite as spectacular as interacting with these playful, intelligent, and magnificent mammals in their natural habitat. On Hilton Head Island you won’t find any dolphins in captivity or controversial dolphin shows – our warm South Carolina coastal waters are a natural haven for wild Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, some migrating through in summer, and others choosing to stay year-round in the ocean and waterways surrounding Hilton Head Island. Very intelligent indeed! 

Hilton Head Island ranks as one of the “10 Best Dolphin Sighting Destinations in North America” and dolphin watching is one of the most popular activities on the island. Dolphins are easily spotted from the beaches, oceanfront golf courses, waterfront restaurants, and even from the comfort of a vacation home

Our guide to dolphin watching on Hilton Head Island highlights when, where, and how best to experience our migratory and resident Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins in the wild.

DOLPHIN SEASON ON HILTON HEAD

Dolphin season on Hilton Head Island is year-round! While most dolphin pods migrate seasonally, the mild year round water temperatures on the South Carolina coastline are highly attractive to Atlantic Bottlehead Dolphins. The Lowcountry coastline is home to an estimated population of 600 resident dolphins with approximately 170 full time resident dolphins thriving on Hilton Head Island. In the summer months, the dolphin population almost doubles with migratory dolphins seeking warmer waters close to shore and hunting for food in the salt marsh estuaries.

WHERE TO SPOT DOLPHINS ON HILTON HEAD

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins are a familiar site on Hilton Head Island and can be easily spotted frolicking and feeding in the Atlantic Ocean, rivers, creeks and tidal marshes. Visitors to Hilton Head regularly encounter our resident dolphin pods playing in Broad Creek, following the shrimp boats on Calibogue Sound, or strand feeding on the muddy banks of the shallow backwater creeks. The South Carolina coastline is one of the few places in the world where you can witness the unique activity of dolphin strand feeding.

DOLPHIN WATCHING TOURS & EXPERIENCES ON HILTON HEAD ISLAND

Dolphin tours are the best way to encounter bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat and explore the hidden creeks and coves otherwise unreachable! A dolphin watching tour is sure to be the highlight of your Hilton Head Island vacation, and there are endless options to choose from.

Hilton Head’s dolphin watching tours range from intimate kayak tours right in the water to narrated group tours on a double decker boat. Any water activity on Hilton Head presents an opportunity to encounter our friendly dolphins and diverse local wildlife – the experience is up to you!

Outside Hilton Head

Outside Hilton Head offer unique guided experiences for all dolphin lovers with options for group tours or customized private outdoor adventures with a naturalist. Choose to dolphin watch by kayak, SUP, pontoon, catamaran, or luxury sail boat by sunset. You can even go tubing with dolphins! If you prefer to explore the coastal waterways unguided, Outside Hilton Head has a wide selection of boat, kayak, and SUP rentals.

Dolphin Discoveries Nature Tour

Unlike many of the big boat tours on Hilton Head, Dolphin Discoveries offers an intimate dolphin watching experience limited to 6 guests only, with no set loop on the water and dolphin sightings GUARANTEED! There are great options to choose from including sunset dolphin cruises, fireworks and dolphin nature tours, and kayaking dolphin experiences to encounter the local pods up close and personal.

Dolphin Seafari

The famous Donuts Dolphin Cruise with Dolphin Seafari is always a favorite with families visiting Hilton Head. The 30-foot covered pontoon boat sits close to the water for ultimate dolphin viewing, with private tours available to escape the crowds. Traveling without kids? The Sunset Dolphin Cruise aboard Dolphin Seafari is voted the best dolphin tour on the island, with private tours available for smaller groups.

Captain Mark’s Dolphin Cruises

Captain Mark has been cruising dolphin lovers down Broad Creek and along the Calibogue Sound for 40 years! Captain Mark’s dolphin cruises cover the coastal wildlife, nature and history of Hilton Head Island and take you past some of the top attractions and secret dolphin viewing spots on the island. For pet parents looking for a dog-friendly Hilton Head dolphin tour, this is it!

Coastal Discovery Museum

The Coastal Discovery Museum offers group tours and private experiences to encounter dolphins in their natural habitat on both Hilton Head and the remote waters of Daufuskie Island. The Coastal Discovery Museum also presents an opportunity to make a difference during your stay on Hilton Head and Adopt a Dolphin! Your support will help raise funds towards saving dolphins and continuing conservation efforts on the island to protect the local pods.


FUN FACTS ABOUT ATLANTIC BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS
  • Dolphins are named after their elongated snout.
  • They eat small fish, squid and crustaceans and swallow their food whole.
  • They grow up to 13 feet long and up to 1,300 pounds.
  • They use sound to communicate, navigate and hunt and can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second.
  • They do not have vocal chords, all sounds come through the dolphin’s blowhole.
  • They shed their outermost layer of skin almost every two hours.
  • Their dorsal fin is as unique as a human fingerprint
  • They can remain submerged and hold their breath for up to 15 minutes.
  • They dive as deep as 800 feet below the surface.
  • They launch themselves as high as 20 feet out of the water.  
  • They can reach speeds of up to 18 miles per hour.
  • They can hold their breath for up to 7 minutes.
  • Dolphins need to be awake to breathe. They have two brain lobes that act independently, one side sleeps while the other stays awake to breathe.
  • They feel emotions such as fear, grief and joy.
  • They LOVE humans but they are wild animals and should always be treated with respect!
  • Dolphins are a federally protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act – it is illegal to feed, touch or harass dolphins!

Stay with Sunset Rentals and you can watch the dolphins from home! Our collection of 225 Hilton Head Island vacation homes and villas are situated in the top resort areas of Hilton Head Island and include luxury rentals on the Calibogue Sound, Broad Creek and Atlantic Ocean with fantastic vantage points for dolphin viewing from your front porch. Start planning your Hilton Head dolphin encounters today with our on island team at Sunset Rentals.


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