If you love dolphins and nature and are planning a trip to Hilton Head Island, exploring the salt marshes and trying to find dolphins with Island Explorer is the way to go. This story reviews three of Island Explorer’s dolphin cruises out of Hilton Head. Some of those trips were granted as media tickets so we could tell our readers all about these neat experiences. All opinions here are our own.
Find a place to stay in Hilton Head. This article contains Stay22 affiliate links.
The other passengers in our boat all gasped when we caught sight of the first dolphin off of Hilton Head Island on the gorgeous South Carolina coast. Growing up with a love of dolphins, I was right with them, grabbing my camera to capture the beautiful creatures in their natural environment.
My two young kids and I were guests of Island Explorer, led by Captain Jim, who was the very first person to open a water sports company on the island 20 years ago. He started Island Explorer with just a raft and a love of showing visitors the vast diversity of ocean life right off the dock in the salt marshes.
The boat we were on was custom made – Island Explorer has three of them – that was designed for comfort and maximum viewing capabilities of dolphins. It also conforms to US Coast certifications and fits up to 12 passengers. The summer is the company’s busiest time of year for obvious reasons, although they operate from March through Thanksgiving.
Let’s See Some Dolphins
The first time we did a tour with Island Explorer, we enjoyed the one-hour tour of the salt marsh, which Jim describes as a “nursery for ocean life.” I immediately understood this as I had taken my young daughters the evening before to a boardwalk overlooking another salt marsh where fishermen were only catching baby black tip sharks (and throwing them back). Captain Jim described this fertile environment as perfect for the smaller sea life just trying to make their way.
The cool thing is that the tours often take guests during low tide because it’s the best chance to see dolphins – for the reason that the fish have less places to hide from the dolphins and it’s prime feeding time. I love nerdy information like that.
As we watched the dolphins swim close to the boat, I wondered if Island Explorer has ever taken guests out and not seen dolphins. Nope. They always see them, to the delight of everyone on board.
Another cool thing I loved was that the boat allows guests to bring snacks and drinks. If you have young kids, snacks are essential. They are probably more important than water. My kids were loving an extended snack time plus dolphin watching. Big win.
Vanishing Island Tour
I had my eye on this tour for over a year so when I had the chance the go, there was no hesitation. The Vanishing Island tour with Island Explorer is a three-hour expedition that takes guests to an island that is only visible during low tide where they can hunt for sand dollars and cool shells.
Vanishing Island is just past Hilton Head Island and Daufuskie Island, the last island in South Carolina, and is a wide expanse of sand. You can only get there by boat but when it’s high tide, it disappears. It feels like you’re out in the ocean walking on water! Because of the currents and tides, sand dollars are aplenty here, much more so than you’ll ever find on the beach. Island Explorer gives you a bag when you board the boat so you can grab as many interesting items from the island as you like.
We found tons of beautiful sand dollars and pretty shells. My kids were in heaven. We were able to spend over an hour on the island and wandering to other parts of the island through shallow waters. It was a unique experience.
Since the tour goes through the same salt marshes as the other dolphin tours, you get to see dolphins! We got really lucky and saw them doing a unique feeding behavior where they splash their tails really hard in the water to stun the fish and then gobble them up. I only heard about this but had never seen it. I really love dolphins and seeing them in the wild doing their cool things was amazing.
Bring plenty of sunscreen and water since it’s really hot and the summer sun is relentless.
Sunset Dolphin Cruise
The last trip I did with Island Explorer was actually with co-workers – so no kids aboard this time. We had a lot of fun! The trip goes out in the early evening on Broad Creek with plenty of time for dolphin sightseeing and viewing the sunset over the sound.
Guests are welcome to bring aboard snacks and adult beverages if they like. For our sunset cruise, the sky was overcast and far away near the horizon we could see clouds start to gather as we started out of the creek area and past the oyster beds. But our captain was in control and happy to slow the boat down when we spotted our first dolphin near one of the oyster beds, which he told us plenty of information about. He fielded all our questions with ease as he guided the boat out to the waters surrounding Daufuskie Island.
I really want to go to that island, like badly. I was trying to convince him to drop me off for a bit. I wasn’t successful (maybe next time!). Our captain spotted a pod of dolphins near the island and we headed in that direction, which also happened to be in the direction of storm clouds that looked like the alien spaceships of the movie Independence Day. It was pretty cool I have to say. Scary, but neat.
No worries though as our captain was watching the radar – and the dolphins – and checking in with the other boats out in the same area. We decided to turn back at this point for safety and I figured our chances of actually seeing the sunset were pretty slim. I was wrong.
Somehow the dark clouds never reached us. In fact, they parted just enough so we could see the brilliant reds and oranges of the setting sun. It was spectacular. The beauty of the sunset over Broad Creek was stunning. We spotted a few more dolphins on our way back to the dock and really didn’t want to leave.
This cruise was fantastic. One of the better parts of it was that the sun wasn’t beating down on you since it’s much later in the day. It’s a relaxed, but very enjoyable adventure. Kids are welcome on this cruise but if you’d like a date night while on the island, this is the way to go. Sunset cruises are $45/person.
Due to COVID, Island Explorer is only taking out private charters on their boats. There is a minimum of six guests and a maximum of 12 guests per boat.
Island Explorer has several trips you can choose from to watch dolphins and explore nature.
The one-hour dolphin tour is a great introduction to the dolphins and the salt marsh environment, especially if you’ve never done this before. The boat stays nearby in Broad Creek and is perfect for smaller kids with short attention spans. They do love the dolphins, though, but an hour is the perfect time for them to enjoy the boat and see the cool animals. These tours are $25/person and run May through September.
The two-hour tour takes guests through Broad Creek and to Calibogue Sound, where there are more opportunities see even more dolphins and explore the Lowcountry’s natural beauty. For the two-hour tour, it is $45/person.
The Vanishing Island three-hour tour is $65/person.
Ready to See Dolphins?
Book a tour now for your Lowcountry trip because summer is the busy season for Island Explorer. The company has won multiple travel awards for their exceptional experiences for guests, and ours was no different. They are top-notch operation and I would choose them again in a heartbeat!
Would your kids love to see some dolphins on your next beach trip?