Outer Banks Dolphins in the Roanoke Sound
The Bottlenose Dolphins who live their entire lives in Roanoke Sound
Even if you’re a longtime visitor to the Outer Banks you may be surprised to find out that there are many family groups of dolphins who spend their entire lives living in Roanoke Sound. Having spent my early years living in the Appalachian mountains, my only experience was with Flipper, the TV dolphin, who was an oceangoing dolphin in the Keys. So I thought all dolphins live in the ocean.
So imagine my surprise when, upon moving to Manteo, I saw dolphin frolicking and doing some serious, water-thrashing fishing right off downtown Manteo! These are not some miniature, inland, brackish-water variation either. These are the full-size bottlenose dolphins, second only to humans in their incredibly high intelligence and emotional intelligence. The ones that gleefully swim along with your boat and play in its wake.
It’s estimated there are 400 to 800 dolphins living in the 800-square-mile Roanoke Sound. Their family groups, or pods, are typically three or four individuals but can number up to 40. The pod will range in age from newborns to 50 years old. These dolphins can range in size from just under 6 feet to nearly 12 feet, and weigh from 330 lbs to 1,430 lbs. Dolphins live 25 to 50 years. Interestingly, male dolphins form a teenage friendship with another male and the two spend their lives as a duo cruising for chicks. Wild and crazy guys!
The nonprofit Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research has been engaged in a photo-identification study of the bottlenose dolphin in the northern Outer Banks. They have identified more than 300 individuals by their fins, each fin as distinctive as a fingerprint. From their website, obxdolphins.org: “Some of the hundreds of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the area show up so frequently they’ve even been given names, like “Rake,” “Scarlet,” and “Onion.” Onion was first identified by his very distinctive fin in Beaufort, North Carolina almost 20 years ago, and he has been sighted there almost every winter since. It has been discovered that Nags Head is his summer home, along with an extensive family of more than 100 members. In his early years, Onion had an unfortunate encounter with a boat propeller and his damaged fin has made him one of the most easily recognized dolphins around. It is possible that Onion’s ancestors have been living in these waters for centuries.” Biologists with this organization run 1.5 to 2 hour dolphin watch tours through Nags Head Dolphin Watch in a 40-foot covered pontoon boat. For details and reservations, call 877.359.8447.
Another well-known dolphin expert, whose ancestors have been plying Roanoke Sound for more than two centuries, is Stuart Wescott, the owner/operator of Sea Tow (AAA for boats) and also, for 22 years, Capt. Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours (outerbankscruises.com), located on the downtown Manteo waterfront. The Capt. Johnny is 55 feet long, 14 feet wide, catamaran hulled boat, seats 49 passengers, and is wheelchair accessible.
Capt. Stuart Wescott of the Capt. Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours taking a phone call during a busy day at the office prior to the next tour.
Capt. Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours at the Manteo waterfront
I asked Capt. Wescott how he finds the dolphin every day, expecting the answer to have something to do with some fancy electronic equipment. Being the practiced showman he is, what followed was a series of one-liners punctuated with serious information: “We ride around aimlessly with no particular porpoise in mind.” They don’t use fish finders. All the boat captains in the sound relay spottings over the radio and they all work together. There’s no guarantee that a tour will see dolphin, but Capt. Wescott says during 2015 they saw dolphin 98% of the time. “Following the dolphins is like a trip to Walmart with my first wife—just pointlessly drifting around.” You see, the dolphins travel the navigation channels like you’d travel the interstate highways (those channels can be up to 13 feet deep) but they move into the shallow water (3- to 4-feet deep) to feed and for socializing. “My grandmother called this kind of socializing shenanigans.” But, from day to day, the dolphins have no particular place to go, keep to no schedule, and have no favorite haunts. Hence, the captains call each other when they spot a pod because no one knows for sure where they’ll be.
Curiously, each year some of the Roanoke Sound dolphin (“the retirees”) travel south in November for the winter to the somewhat warmer waters of Morehead City and Beaufort, NC, but many remain here year ‘round. Capt. Wescott said he’s seen as many as 100 dolphins in Kitty Hawk Bay in the month of February.
Luckily, all the “retirees” come home to Roanoke Sound just in time for our tourist season. They bring a smile and sense of wonderment to everyone that sees them.
The crew at Capt. Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours. (Left to right) Dailey Midgett, Joe Love, and Parker Midgett
For more information on Capt. Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours, call 252.473.1425 or visit outerbankscruises.com
- by Durinda Blevins