Video of man trying to touch dolphins sparks probe

Authorities are investigating an incident of a man trying to touch dolphins feeding on a sandbar in the inlet between Folly and Morris islands.

Cantey Hare warned his friend about trying to touch wild dolphins that had driven mullet to shore for a meal.

“He just decided he would stick his hand in there. I said, ‘You know, that’s like trying to pet a bear when they are feeding a cub,’” said Hare of Charleston.

The dolphin encounter left the unidentified friend with an injured foot. He was lucky that the 6- to 8-foot dolphins didn’t break one of his legs with their powerful bodies, Hare said.

“It (the man’s foot) immediately got swollen. He (the dolphin) hit him pretty hard. We put ice on it and we ended up going to get it X-rayed. It was ligament damage,” he said.

Federal fisheries officials said they are investigating the dolphin encounter as shown on a video of the incident posted on Hare’s Facebook page.

“We can’t really share any details beyond that since it is an open law enforcement investigation,” said Kim Amendola, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The video appears to show dolphins engaged in a behavior known as “strand feeding” that happens when a group of them herd a school of fish or shrimp to land and then launch their bodies out of the water and onto a sandbar or the shore to feed.

Interactions between humans and dolphins are governed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Amendola said.

“This can be construed as harassment or something else, I don’t know. So that’s what enforcement is going to be looking at,” she said.

A “constituent” brought the video to the agency’s attention, she said.

When told fisheries officials were investigating what happens on the video, Hare said, “They should.” He described what his friend did as a dumb move.

In the video, a bare-chested man in shorts runs into view and reaches toward the dolphins who seem to react by splashing furiously. The man races away from the dolphins who then disappear from view.

The dolphins put on an incredible show of “strand feeding” on mullet for 45 minutes on a sandbar in the inlet between Morris and Folly islands, Hare said.

“They (dolphins) do this all the time out there. It’s what is so incredible,” he said.

He said the situation came about innocently when he was showing around friends from Upstate New York during a day boat trip. “We really were respectful of them (dolphins) and not trying to do any harm in any manner,” Hare said.

Hare said he would check with his friend to see if he would talk about the dolphin incident.

Stacey Horstman, bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, said that it is important to educate the public about strand feeding so people understand what is happening when they see it.

Katie Zimmerman, of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, said she contacted officials about the video on Wednesday but she wasn’t sure if she was the first to do so.

Zimmerman said it is a shame that rather than enjoying the rare opportunity to see dolphins strand feeding, the man instead acted in a way that could be construed as harassing them. Dolphins here usually strand feed in order to avoid having to go further out in the ocean and deal with more aggressive species, she said.