Tips For Spotting Dolphin On LBI

Who doesn't love the Dolphin?
Who doesn’t love to see the Dolphin at the beach?

As a young musician I once got to crash at a fan’s house in Brant Beach after a gig in Asbury Park. While it was great to spend some downtime frolicking in the LBI surf, our drummer injured his back learning to bodysurf. A woman staying at the house where we were guests boasted about her prowess as a “healer” and our reluctant drummer indulged her on the oceanfront deck. Her involved and decidedly ineffective healing treatment , involving crystals and lots of vocalization, was interrupted when a pod of LBI Dolphin swam by. After the Dolphin passed I heard the New Age Healer whisper to her friend, “Honey, aren’t you proud of me? I called the Dolphin forth with my healing!” While I applaud her delusion, her narcissism still embarrasses me to this very day.

After “If I find a Dolphin on LBI, can I keep it?”, “How can I see the Dolphin on LBI?” is the number one question I’m asked. Ahhh, if only it was as easy as calling them forth with our healing, we would see a whole lot more Dolphin and be a whole lot healthier. But the Dolphin are here and it just takes some effort, patience, and a little luck to see them. Over the years I’ve made observational notes about each Dolphin encounter I’ve had, and I have about 4 every day during the summer seasons. Here are some tips.

Understanding Dolphin Behavior

Watch for the Playful Pods: you'll see this when Dolphin are engaged in their favorite activities.
Watch for the Playful Pods: you’ll see this when Dolphin are engaged in their favorite activities. 

The Jersey Shore is just a small part of a Dolphin superhighway. The Dolphin are always traveling. Some are passing through, some are seasonal residents, and some may even be longer term residents. Some Dolphin are just out on the town with the kids and others are on long journeys. It’s a wide highway stretching from the waves to far out at sea with traffic generally running North to South and South to North.

Traveling

A healthy portion Pod of Dolphin travel the New Jersey Shore
A healthy portion Pod of Dolphin travel the New Jersey Shore

Your average sighting will be Dolphin traveling briskly to the North or to the South. Dolphin are highly social and travel in groups called Pods. Rarely will you see a lone Dolphin. Most often you’ll see a Pod of 7-15. It can be difficult to count because they don’t all surface at the same time. If you’re lucky, you might see a Super Pod made of hundreds of Dolphin spread amongst multiple Pods traveling together.

When Dolphin are traveling, they move briskly. They surface regularly for air about every 20 seconds as they move down the beach. The pace varies, but it you try to walk the beach with them, they will outpace your brisk walk in about an 1/8 of a mile. When they surface, you’ll usually just see the dorsal fin with the blowhole right in front of it.

It takes mad skills to detect the pressure changes need to open your blowhole above the surface. So the little ones (Dolphin Calf) cheat and poke their heads out.
It takes mad skills to detect the pressure changes need to open your blowhole above the surface. So the little ones (Dolphin Calf) cheat and poke their heads out.
Can you spot the Calf in this Pod?
Can you spot the Calf in this Dolphin Pod?

An adult traveling dolphin generally won’t expose its cute little face or adorable tail while traveling. But the kids will! A baby Dolphin is called a calf, and calfs lack the skills to expose just the blowhole and regulate the pressure, so they have to overcompensate and pop their whole head out of the water. Calfs cling to their mothers like glue and usually surface with them, just along side the dorsal fin.  So keep your eyes open for tiny, adorable little calf faces popping up just next to mama, especially when you see larger pods. If you’re lucky, you might see a good Tail slap when a traveling Dolphin make a particularly deep dive, or is just feeling rowdy.

Triple Tail: A real Dolphin Sighting Treat on the Jersey Shore
Triple Tail: A real Dolphin Sighting Treat on the Jersey Shore

Feeding

Unlike humanz who tend to pre-mediate their rest stops while on the road, the Dolphin will hit any and all rest areas they encounter on the road. Traveling Dolphin will generally circle back, or break off from the pack to investigate food items. If you see a Pod heading south, then suddenly notice the dorsal fins switch direction or head towards shore, they probably found some food and will play with it for a bit before getting back on the road. Watch carefully. If they find something particularly delicious, the Dolphin might get pinned down feeding and begin leaping and diving in and around the cloud of food.

Dolphin comin' in hot! When they head East & West, they are usually investigating something.
Dolphin comin’ in hot! When they head East & West, they are usually investigating something.
Dolphin searching for food in a big school of Bunker
Dolphin searching for food in a big school of Bunker

Mating

The ultimate behavior for Dolphin viewing is mating, or what we like to call a Gratuitous Dolphin Extravaganza. These episodes are hard to miss as the Dolphin stay basically stationary and go berserk. Splashing, leaping, head popups, and tail slaps can go on for and hour or more as they Dolphin drift on the current amusing themselves. Real Seaworld style stuff. A Gratuitous Dolphin Extravaganza is something you will never forget if you are lucky enough to witness one.

Dolphin normally don't do this unless it's a Gratuitous Dolphin Extravaganza
Dolphin normally don’t do this unless it’s a Gratuitous Dolphin Extravaganza
Full body breaches means there is some serious action going on.
Full body breaches means there is some serious action going on.
It's pretty hard to miss if you are lucky enough to catch some Dolphin mating.
It’s pretty hard to miss if you are lucky enough to catch some Dolphin mating.

Timing Is Everything: The Best Times To See Dolphin on The Jersey Shore

While a hearty Dolphin sighting is possible at virtually any time of day, here are some tips if you really, really, really want to make sure you see them.

Become A Morning Person

Early morning is the best time to see the Dolphin. My experience has shown that between 7 AM to 9 AM has the highest probability of a sighting. If you are going to intentionally hunt for Dolphin, this is the time to do it. There is also, generally, less human activity in the water in the mornings. Nothing stops a good Dolphin show dead in its track like a zooming Jet Ski, curious Paddleboarder, or a fishing boat.

The Lower Side of The Tide

Dolphin love to swim the Jersey Shore, just beyond the break on the lower sides of mid-tide.
Dolphin love to swim the Jersey Shore, just beyond the waves on the lower sides of mid-tide.

Dolphin sightings are more frequent on the lower side of the tide. I don’t know of a reason for it, but I can’t remember ever having seen a good Dolphin showing at dead high tide.

Watch That Wind

Glassy, windless, high contrast morning light makes the Dolphin much easier to see from the beach
Glassy, windless, high contrast morning light makes the Dolphin much easier to see from the beach

The wind is your friend in terms of visibility. Strong winds in any direction, but particularly North & South, turn the sea into a choppy mess of surface waves and bumps: the perfect camouflage for Dolphin dorsal fins. Even though they tend to swim more aggressively in strong seas, Dolphin can be almost impossible to spot in a sloppy, chop covered ocean.

Look for still mornings and evenings, or days with a light West wind for the best surface visibility. A nice, glassy, reflective sea will make a huge difference in your ability to spot them and will greatly increase the distance at which you can spot and track them.

Follow The Sun

Morning light and Dolphin Tail go great together
Morning light and Dolphin Tail go great together

While the sun does not have an effect on the Dolphin behavior, it does have a strong effect on visibility. The shiny, glistening surface of wet Dolphin skin is highly reflective and will appear  drastically different in different light. Early morning and late evening sun creates the highest contrast, and therefore, easiest to spot, Dolphin. Early morning Dolphin fins are backlit, so appear very dark, almost black, sometimes leading folks to believe they are Porpoise. Late evening Dolphin fins often reflect the color of the setting sun sun, appearing sometimes yellowish and often pinkish. Mid-day sun has a lower contrast and the Dolphin blend in more with the environment.

Afternoon light has lower contrast so it's harder to pick them out... but incredible Dolphin color
Afternoon light has lower contrast so it’s harder to pick them out… but incredible Dolphin color

Putting It All Together: Tracking & Scanning

So now you know your ideal set up: If you encounter a still morning, with light West wind, a glassy sea, with the tide on the lower side of things, get out there and look between 7AM and 9AM you  are virtually guaranteed to see some Dolphin, and you’ll spot them easily in the backlit, high contrast light.

Hard to miss a Dolphin tail in black lit on a calm morning sea
Hard to miss a Dolphin tail in black lit on a calm morning sea

Understanding the general Dolphin behavior, you’ll now be expecting the Dolphin to be traveling straight North or South and surfacing roughly every 20 seconds. Every surface is a surprise so it is important to track and scan the sea around the Dolphin and not stay focused on one spot. Make a note of which direction the dorsal fin is facing and the speed at which it is moving. The Dolphin will most likely resurface slightly ahead of that position.

As the Dolphin pass, remember that they are most likely traveling in a Pod so chances are that more are just behind them. If a Dolphin passes you heading North, make sure to look South for more incoming Dolphin and don’t get too obsessed tracking the first one you saw.

If you are really, really obsessed with seeing them, a last tip is to take a seat high on the dune where you have a better vantage point for looking far and wide.  If you’re looking, you can often see them coming at great distances, especially if the Pod is large. Once you have their position you can move in closer for a better look.

Don’t Forget To Watch The People

The easiest way to spot a passing pod of Dolphin is to let someone else spot them for you. Keep your eyes open for crowds gathering and pointing at things, and keep your ears open for cries of “Honey, there are Dolphin!” and “Sweetie, did you see the Dolphin?!” Whenever something really spectacular happens on the beach you’re more likely to spot the crowd before you spot what all the fuss is about!

Final Thoughts: Capturing The Moment

Doh!
Doh!

Few things trigger the instinct to snap a photo like a surprise Dolphin visit at the beach. Unfortunately, the Dolphin are elusive and difficult enough to spot, let alone photograph. Most portable cameras, and particularly cell phones, are woefully ill equipped to capture the moment in a meaningful way. Without a really good zoom or telephoto lens you’ll be squinting desperately into the strong glare of an LCD screen looking for a needle in a haystack. If you are lucky enough to catch a popup on film, the photo will severely degrade the moment causing you to say stuff like “it was so much cooler than it looks!” when sharing the photo with friends.   Consider carefully your urge to grab the camera. You don’t want to miss these magical moments and have your only memory be the frustration of fumbling with your camera.

But if you really want that epic shot, take as many photos as possible as they pass and sort through them later! Every popup is a surprise, and a gift.