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Creature Feature: Dolphin watching on the Shore

Probably the most popular animals to frequent the Ocean City region, dolphins are a favorite of both children and adults, capturing our hearts with their creaky door-sounding calls and magnificent leaps into the air. Here’s your place to learn more about the mammals that call our ocean home. 

A glance at the Atlantic bottlenose

The dolphins that you’ll find off the coast of Delmarva are of the Atlantic bottlenose species. They travel in pods of approximately 10-30 members, which is why you’ll often see so many at once if you’re treated to a sighting while in Ocean City. These dolphins inhabit warm and temperate seas, so they’ll live anywhere except the Arctic and Antarctic Circle regions and will often travel south for the winter. They eat prey fish, which they hunt for in groups or individually by using echolocation, meaning they emit signals out into their environment and listen to the echoes of these signals to identify objects near them. 

Bottlenose dolphins are majestic and highly intelligent creatures, and luckily for us, they’ve been known to spend their summers in Ocean City just as we do. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to swim with dolphins during your time in OC (unless you swim out about 200 feet into the ocean, but that’s not highly recommended). The Marine Mammal Act of 1972 prohibits swimming with dolphins in most states in order to protect the safety of humans and animals alike. However, there are plenty of opportunities here to at least look at the beautiful sea creatures–dolphin watching is a much-loved pastime of locals, tourists and animal lovers from far and wide.

Where’s the best spot to dolphin watch?

Generally, anywhere with a view of the ocean is a good place to look for dolphins. If that’s one of your priorities while in OC, definitely book yourself an oceanfront hotel room on an upper floor with a balcony view of the Atlantic. Several years ago, “whale/dolphin watching” was a thread on our forum, and a number of users shared where they were in Ocean City when they saw a pod of dolphins swim by. (Sadly, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a whale floating around–dolphin sightings are your best bet, and you might occasionally spot seals passing through as well.) Here’s what people had to say:

“I stayed at 116th Street last summer and I could see dolphins from my balcony just about every day.” –peteanddebbieward

“See dolphins in Assawoman Bay all the time. They follow the boat and jump the wakes.” –hapnstance

“One of the best views I ever had of dolphins was at The Frog Bar (I believe it was still OC Frogs at the time). I was having dinner with my folks there right around sunset in August, and a bunch of dolphins were making their way through the Inlet toward the Bay. They have binoculars at the bar for patrons to use, so we got really good views.” –Kds53098

“Frog Bar is great. I remember one time see a whole school of dolphins charging out of the inlet back to sea against an incoming tide. It was a sight to see, especially if you know how strong those tidal waters can be at the inlet.” –Ibo

A few tips

Here’s some of the advice that I can offer when it comes to seeking out dolphins:

  • Many OC visitors have reported seeing dolphins in the morning, but don’t wake up early for that reason alone–dolphins are active throughout the day and are just as likely to be spotted at noon or in the evening. 
  • It’s also been said quite often that a ride on ocean-traversing speed boats like the Sea Rocket will inevitably lead to spotting a pod of dolphins. 
  • Bring binoculars! Whether you’re on a condo balcony or out on the water, a pair of binoculars will help you get the best view. 
  • On a personal note, I once went parasailing when I was about 9 years old, and while up in the sky I saw several dolphins swimming and jumping in the water beneath my feet. That’s definitely one of my most magical Ocean City memories. 
Some people watch for dolphins as part of their job or volunteer duty. Every year, National Aquarium staff and volunteers take part in the Maryland Dolphin Count in order to identify dolphin populations, reproduction rates and ocean health. (Photo courtesy of the National Aquarium) 

Fast facts

A few fun pieces of trivia about the dolphins that live in our waters. 

  • The longest-living bottlenose dolphin in human care was named Nellie, and she lived to be 61 years old. (1953-2014)
  • Bottlenose dolphins have the second largest encephalization of any mammal on Earth–that’s amount of brain mass in relation to the total body mass–with humans possessing the largest. This contributes to their exceedingly high intelligence and emotional awareness.
  • The deepest dive for any dolphin to make was 300 feet deep and was accomplished by a U.S. Navy-trained dolphin named Tuffy. 
  • If you frequent the Chesapeake Bay region, there’s an app called Chesapeake DolphinWatch that scientists encourage you to utilize. By using the app to mark the location of your Chesapeake Bay dolphin sighting, you’ll help scientists uncover what’s currently unknown, including how often dolphins come into the bay, how long they spend there and what areas of the Bay they frequent.  
Kristin is a writer and photographer in Ocean City, Maryland, and is the content manager for OceanCity.com and other State Ventures, LLC sites. She loves getting reader-submitted stories and photos, so send her an email anytime. She also works part-time at the Art League of Ocean City and the Ocean City Film Festival and lives just off the peninsula with her dog and fiancé. Her photos can be found on Instagram @oc_kristin.

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  1. I love to watch the dolphins and really enjoyed the boat tours that took us where the dolphins hung out. It is truly more fun being right out there where the dolphins come right alongside the boat. But, alas, I can’t remember what company it was we used for that activity. Does anyone know any boat tours that specifically take you out to the dolphins where they hang out? Please advise. I even checked with the Information Center at the Convention Center and they had no idea. My friend in DE has never been on one of these tours and I would love to take her out on one.

    • It’s always great if you manage to see the dolphins while out on a boat ride in Ocean City. The Angler has an after dinner boat ride which is only $3 when you have dinner there, and its often common see dolphins while on their cruise. They will stop the engine to allow the dolphins to play around the boat and give guests a great view. Could this be the one you were on before?

  2. The Bottlenose Dolphins view-able from Ocean City are part of the “Mid-Atlantic Coastal Migratory” stock. They tend to have seasonal residencies from New Jersey through north of Cape Hatteras. In the fall they will migrate south to the bight between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout. It’s a good possibility that the dolphins you see in the summer are the same “Family” group year after year; they are somewhat like people in this respect, returning to the same summer home with their family group.


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