If you’re heading to a beach this weekend in the Carolinas, it might be wise to stay clear of the dolphins.
A popular video posted on Facebook this week set off alarms among some marine biologists, who told media outlets the animal was clearly seeking out humans with "classic begging behavior" to be fed.
The video, shot along South Carolina’s Wando River, shows a grandfather interacting playfully with a dolphin that swam up to the side of a boat. However, had the man gotten just a little closer, he could have felt the clamp of 80 to 100 sharp teeth, says Meghan Galipeau, a dolphin researcher with the S.C. Aquarium.
She called the video "disturbing" and noted the man seen attempting to pet the dolphin could be fined. The crime? It's illegal to get within 50 yards of a dolphin, let alone try and pet them, she says.
"What we see in that video is not wild dolphin behavior. That dolphin has learned to be given fish from a boat, and that is dangerous, " she said.
"Dolphins have a reputation for being friendly and cute, but they are large, powerful predatory animals who weigh up to 500 pounds and have up to 100 very sharp teeth. The chances of being bitten is very high, if they feel threatened or mistake your hand for a fish."
Galipeau says what alarmed her most about the video is it was viewed nearly 20,000 times by people who posted comments about wanting to find the dolphin so they could interact with it. That shows a general lack of awareness of the law and the danger, she says.
"If you see a dolphin acting like this, you need to slowly move away from it, not give it attention, and if you see somebody else doing it, report them to the (S.C.) Department of Natural Resources."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there have been dozens of dolphin bite reports and instances of people being yanked into the water by dolphins.
In one case, a woman spent a week in a hospital after she “fed a pair of dolphins and then jumped in the water to swim with them,” reported NOAA. The dolphins mistook her for food and bit her legs, according to NOAA.
Bill Roettger, who posted the video, was out fishing with his grandson last weekend when he says the two encountered the dolphin alongside their boat. In the video, he is seen reaching over the side, and the dolphin appears to playfully follow his hand back and forth.
At one point, the dolphin pulls up out of the water and appears to be reaching for Roettger’s hand with its mouth. His grandson is heard clapping in the background.
Roettger did not try to feed the animal at any point, which would have broken the law. The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act says it is illegal to “feed or approach dolphins in the wild,” according to National Geographic.
Penalties include jail time and fines of $100,000, National Geographic reported. Social media posts of people feeding dolphins in other states have resulted in such fines, including a 2014 incident in Jacksonville, Florida, when a man was photographed feeding a dolphin on the St. John’s River.
Florida wildlife officials used the photo, which was posted online, to trace the man to his job, and he was fined $250, reported News4Jax.