SC dolphin video leads biologist to speak up about dangers of ‘begging dolphins’

David Travis Bland

After a video of a seemingly friendly dolphin interacting with boaters started making its way around the internet, marine mammal researcher Lauren Rust had to speak up.

The video, first reported by WBTW, shows a dolphin appearing to want food from a family boating on the Stono River near Charleston.

A dolphin coming up with a smile-like expression may seem like a new buddy, but it’s actually dangerous behavior for the sea mammal, according Rust, a biologist and executive director of Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network.

The organization is dedicated to protecting Charleston’s resident dolphin population and other animals.

Certain dolphins have become accustomed to people feeding them. They’re known as “begging dolphins” among researchers. They approach mostly boats with their heads up and mouths open hoping to get a snack.

Dolphins are naturally curious and may swim beside boats and gaze at people. That’s normal behavior, Rust said. But approaching with their mouths open is symptomatic of a begging dolphin.

While it may be tempting to treat the dolphin like a good dog, feeding them can lead the dolphins to become dependent and have harmful interactions with humans, Rust said.

“They lose their fear of boats and humans,” she said.

Dolphins who lose that fear are injured more often being hit by boats and motors and getting tangled up in fishing lines or being hooked from eating fishing bait they find. People will feed dolphins foods that make them sick, such as old fish and even turkey legs, Rust said.

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Charleston is home to about 350 resident dolphins, which may be a smaller population than most people think, according to the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network. That’s why the group focuses on protecting the animals and raising awareness about begging dolphins.

Eventually, a begging dolphin might stop hunting for its own food, resulting in a host of health concerns and conditions. Studies have shown the animals pass the begging behavior onto their offspring, according to Rust.

”It sets up this cycle it can’t break,” she said.

In her research, Rust has encountered dolphins with gun shot and stab wounds, likely from people who lash out against begging dolphins, she said.

It’s also illegal to feed dolphins because they’re a federally protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Feeding a dolphin is punishable with a $100,000 fine and a year in prison.

If you encounter begging dolphins, Rust said you should completely ignore them no matter how much you want to treat them like a dog.

“Don’t pay them any attention. Don’t stop to take a video,” she said. “Leave the area if possible. If the dolphins aren’t getting what they want, we hope they’ll just go back to hunting.”