What kinds of dolphins can you find in South Carolina?
I don’t think there is anything better than watching dolphins! Their playful, gregarious nature makes them one of the most beloved animals in the world.
Below, you will find pictures and descriptions of the kinds of dolphins in South Carolina. I’ve also included RANGE MAPS and fun facts about each species. And keep reading to the end of the article for the differences between Dolphins and Porpoises!
Although there are tons of interesting facts about dolphins, I kept each description brief to cover all the species. So, you may want to consider purchasing the book below if you want more information or need help with additional identification.
Here are the 7 DOLPHINS That Can Be Found in South Carolina!
- I only included species that have “dolphin” or “porpoise” in their common name. For example, a Killer Whale (Orca) is in the dolphin family, but they are not included below. To see the types of WHALES that live in South Carolina, CLICK HERE.
#1. Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
- Stenella attenuata
- 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) long, small, slender, and lightweight. They are slimmer due to their warmer habitat.
- The long, thin rostrum (nose) is different from most other dolphins.
- They have light bellies and dark backs with a wavy pattern of spots on the sides.
Look for Pantropical Spotted Dolphins in warm water in South Carolina.
Generally, this species is curious and confident and will often approach boats to bow ride. Pantropical Spotted Dolphins also love to perform acrobatics. They are highly social and can form huge pods. You’ll commonly spot them interacting and traveling with other dolphin species.
Though the species is not threatened, some populations have suffered terribly as a result of human activity. For example, dolphins are killed in vast numbers due to being caught in fishing nets and by poachers who kill the dolphins on purpose.
Throughout the 1960s, millions of dolphins were killed to increase the tuna population available for humans to catch. Sadly, these dolphins are also hunted for human consumption.
#2. Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
- Stenella frontalis
- 5 to 5.7 feet (1.5 to 1.7 meters) long, with stocky torsos and rounded bodies. They have large pectoral and dorsal fins.
- Their coloring is generally paler on the belly and dark gray on the back, with distinct spotting all over.
Look for the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin in South Carolina in the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean.
Though Atlantic Spotted Dolphins can be found in deep water, they are very comfortable in the shallow waters nearer the coast and continental shelf. They are playful and inquisitive and will often approach boats and people. Unfortunately, this behavior can put them at risk of being harassed or harmed by dolphin watchers or unhappy fishermen.
These dolphins are very sociable and playful and often interact with other marine mammals. However, their core pods are relatively small and usually comprised of less than 50 individuals. For groups closer to the shore, that number drops to as low as five dolphins in a pod.
Thanks to their tendency to live and hunt in shallower waters, these dolphins eat a wide range of invertebrates and fish. In addition, they can use echolocation to help them scour the sand and discover tasty meals below the surface.
#3. Spinner Dolphin
- Stenella longirostris
- 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 meters) long, slender and streamlined, with a very narrow rostrum (nose).
- The coloring of Spinner Dolphins is beautiful: they have a pale gray belly, a wavy line of light gray on the sides, and patches of dark gray on the back.
Spinner Dolphins can be found in South Carolina in warm water. Look for them on the east coast through the Gulf of Mexico and down to the Hawaiian Islands.
Because Spinner Dolphins have very predictable behavior patterns, they are easy to observe. During the day, they rest in groups near the coast, in shallow, protected bays. Unfortunately, this predictability has led to severe harassment by unscrupulous dolphin-watching tour companies, especially in the Hawaiian Islands.
Harassment disturbs the resting dolphins and causes them to perform impressive aerial displays. Legal action has been taken against unethical dolphin-watchers in Hawaii, but more reform is needed to protect these populations fully.
Spinner Dolphins are a joy to see in the ocean when viewed ethically. They are extremely acrobatic, confident, and showy when transitioning from their rest phase to their hunting time. It’s common to observe them leaping high into the air and performing a complex spinning maneuver as they fall back toward the water.
Their feeding habits are also quite different from some other dolphins. As night falls, they move from their shallow resting spots in sunny bays out into the deeper ocean. They catch fish and squid that migrate closer to the surface at night.
#4. Clymene Dolphin
- Stenella clymene
- 6 to 6.5 feet (1.8 to 2 meters) long with a stocky, thick build. They have short rostrums (noses) and a curved dorsal fin.
- Dark gray overall coloring is interrupted with a small white patch on the belly.
Clymene Dolphins live in the warm water of the southern Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
This species is very elusive, and little is known about them. This is partly because they are an offshore, oceanic species and prefer a water depth of over 16,500 feet (5000 meters).
In addition, their appearance is easily confused with other dolphin species that inhabit the same water. As a result, observers find it difficult to record their behavior accurately. They perform aerial displays like other dolphins, leaping out of the air and rotating as they fall.
Some research suggests that Clymene Dolphins dive to feed on small fish and squid, hunting mostly at night. However, this is one of the most mysterious dolphin species in South Carolina, and very little is known about them.
#5. Short-beaked Common Dolphin
- Delphinus delphis
- 6 feet (1.8 meters) long, stocky, and generally a small species.
- The color pattern of common dolphins is distinct, with yellowish-tan and gray markings that form an hourglass pattern on the sides. The belly is pale gray or white, and the rest of the body is dark gray.
This species is one of the most common dolphins in South Carolina!
Short-beaked Common Dolphins are highly adaptable and abundant. They inhabit a wide variety of environments, from tropical seas to cool temperate waters. However, they primarily live offshore, from the continental shelf and beyond to deeper waters. This habitat preference is slightly different from their long-beaked relatives.
Short-beaked Common Dolphins are gregarious and usually observed in huge pods of hundreds of dolphins. However, they can occasionally form super pods of up to 10,000 individuals!
They are an active and playful species that engages in breaching, bowing, and other aerial displays. They’re well-known for their acrobatic somersaults, flipping head-over-tail in the air.
Short-beaked Common Dolphins are also very social and confident around large whales and boats. You’re likely to observe them bow riding and wake surfing on both ships and whales. In addition, they are often seen with pilot whales, spinner dolphins, and seabirds.
#6. Common Bottlenose Dolphin
- Tursiops truncatus
- 6 to 13 feet (1.8 to 4 meters) long with a powerful, curved body and stocky build.
- The belly is pale gray to buff, and the back is light or dark gray, depending on the temperature of their habitat. Cooler-water individuals tend to be darker.
Bottlenose Dolphins are the best-known dolphin in South Carolina!
They can be found in a wide range of environments. Some populations live far offshore in colder waters, but many confidently navigate their way into harbors, bays, and estuaries around the coastline.
Because of their boisterous and confident natures, coastal populations of Bottlenose Dolphins are easy to observe as they approach boats and beaches. They love to bow-ride and are playful and acrobatic. In addition, these dolphins are very social with many other creatures, including whales.
This species forms fairly small pods, usually with less than 20 individuals. Sometimes, lone Bottlenose Dolphins can also be seen traveling and hunting. The pods can break apart and come back together as dolphins travel, mate, and form family units. Males often break away from their mother’s group and form pairs as they seek out new females.
The nature of inshore Bottlenose Dolphins has made them extremely easy to observe and study. Their adaptability to new environments and shallow water, as well as their social and adventurous personalities, has led to them being kept very successfully in captivity. As a result, researchers have discovered much more about Bottlenose Dolphins’ ecology, morphology, and behavior than any other species.
#7. Rough-toothed Dolphin
- Steno bredanensis
- 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) long, with a narrow, streamlined build. Their dorsal fins are tall and curved and they have long rostrums (noses).
- They’re dark overall with white bellies and a white spot on the tip of the nose.
Rough-toothed Dolphins prefer warmer water in South Carolina. However, they’re pelagic, so they live away from the coast in water over 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) deep.
They are also far less playful, agile, and showy than many other dolphin species. Instead, they use their energy for speed, surfacing with a subtle skimming movement.
These dolphins live in small pods of less than 20 individuals. In some populations, the average pod size is as small as three. However, they are very social animals and are often seen interacting with other dolphins and whales.
Rough-toothed Dolphins eat fish and squid as other dolphins do but are also highly skilled at hunting larger fish. Research suggests that they could be specialized hunters of mahi-mahi or “dolphin fish.”
Do you want to learn about LAND MAMMALS that are found in South Carolina? Check out this field guide!
27 COMMON Mammals in South Carolina! (ID Guide)
Which of these dolphins have you seen in South Carolina?
Let us know in the comments!