Dolphin at sunset on Hilton Head Island

Everything You Need to Know About Hilton Head’s Dolphins

There’s been a lot of talk about Hilton Head Island being voted Travel & Leisure’s #1 Island in the Continental U.S. (for the 3rd consecutive year no less) but did you know we’re also one of the 10 Best Dolphin Sighting Destinations in North America? When visiting Hilton Head Island, it’s not hard to spot the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat. We know that getting up close and personal with these playful creatures is on nearly everyone’s bucket list, so read on to find out how to stop dreaming, and start planning!

The Bottlenose Dolphin: A History

Bottlenose dolphins are the most common members of the oceanic dolphin family. Their considerable intelligence means you’ve likely seen them showing off in an aquarium show, and starring in the hit 1960’s television program Flipper (aka the aquatic Lassie). Their curved mouths give the appearance of a friendly, permanent smile, and, when you see one in the wild, you can’t help but smile back.

The name “bottlenose” comes from the elongated upper and lower jaw that forms a type of snout. They weigh in at an average of 660 pounds, and can grow to be 13 feet in length. Fossils indicate that the bottlenose made its first appearance during the Miocene epoch, which extends between 23 to 5 million years ago.

According to National Geographic, these sleek swimmers can reach speeds of over 18 miles per hour and can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second. The clicking sounds are a form of echolocation, aiding the dolphins in their search for food. The sounds travel until they hit an object, then bounce back, giving them a sense of the location, size, and shape of the target.

The Life of a Bottlenose Dolphin


A mother bottlenose carries her calf for a full year. Mothers give birth in the water and the calf instinctively knows how to swim, however they depend on their mother’s milk to survive for the next two years. If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of a baby dolphin in Hilton Head, Sea World tells us that calving season in the waters along the U.S. Atlantic coast peaks in the springtime.

The bottlenose can live to be 40 years of age, but their average lifespan is 15 – 16 years. Nellie, the longest-living Atlantic bottlenose dolphin in human care, died at age 61 on April 30, 2014. Social by nature, you can find them traveling in pods ranging in size from fifteen to over a hundred, depending on their habitat.

The bottlenose dolphin has he second-largest relative brain size of any mammal on Earth (humans have the largest), and a study conducted by the University of Chicago showed that they can remember whistles of other dolphins they'd lived with after 20 years of separation.

Bottlenose dolphin on Hilton Head Island
Dolphin spotted in a kayak off of Hilton Head Island

Where to Find Dolphins on Hilton Head Island

While most groups migrate seasonally, Lowcountry dolphins enjoy our mild water temperatures year-round, which means anytime is a great time for a dolphin-spotting adventure!

Hilton Head Island was built for boating—take a nature and dolphin cruise with Outside Hilton Head to see wild Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins in their natural habitat. As you sail along, you’re also likely to see ospreys, egrets, pelicans, bald eagles, minks, otters, and other friendly faces along the way. If you want to get up close and personal, we recommend booking a kayak excursion during the month of June when rapidly warming waters bring dolphins closer to shore to hunt.

More of a land lover? Lucky for you, you can often spot dolphins cavorting close to shore right from the beach. And, if you’d like to go wildlife watching from the comfort of your own room, several oceanfront hotels and homes and villas on the Island—including Hilton Head Plantation, Port Royal Plantation, Palmetto Dunes and Forest Beach—are excellent places for dolphin watching.

Dog Meets Dolphin on Hilton Head Island
Dog Meets Dolphin on Hilton Head Island

Fast Facts

  • Some bottlenose dolphins can remain submerged while holding their breath for 15 minutes. However, they usually dive for just a few minutes at a time.
  • They can swim up to 260 meters below the surface of the ocean. The deepest dive ever recorded for a bottlenose dolphin was 300 meters, accomplished by Tuffy, a dolphin trained by the US Navy.
  • Dolphins can launch themselves up to 15 feet out of the water. There is an ongoing debate as to why dolphins jump.
  • Bottlenose dolphins don’t chew. They eat fish and squid, whole—eating the head first to avoid going against the grain with the scales.
  • They sleep with one eye open. Unlike humans, bottlenose dolphins need to be awake to breathe.

After reading about Hilton Head Island’s most magnificent mammal, you’re probably itching to see one for yourself. Your first step is to browse our vacation offers and start planning your visit to Hilton Head Island. Then, you can explore all the ways to make a splash with our available water sports and activities while you’re here. Finally, don’t forget to share your dolphin photos with us using #LowcountryLife on Instagram!


Everything You Need To Know About Dolphins on Hilton Head Island

Find Your Island Time

Hilton Head is America’s favorite island, offering 12 miles of pristine beaches and everything you need for the ultimate retreat. Enjoy easy days relaxing in the sun, sand and surf on some of the best beaches in the country.
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