Tips for Dolphin Watching on Hatteras Island

Dolphin Watching on Hatteras Island

Whether you’re on the comfortable deck of your oceanfront rental, or on the bow of a local tour boat, you’ll discover that there are plenty of opportunities to spot one of Hatteras Islands’ most popular residents – the local dolphins and porpoises. Frequently spotted cruising along the breakers or just off the island’s inlets, these playful and very friendly creatures are a fun surprise encounter during a vacation, and can provide some exciting photos and memories to take back home and share.

So how do you make a dolphin encounter part of your upcoming vacation? While luck plays a major role, there are some tips and tricks for dolphin-loving visitors who want to meet and greet with these friendly Hatteras Island locals.

What to Look for: Dolphins vs. Porpoises

Sometimes those dolphins you see cruising along the ocean or Pamlico Sound waters aren’t dolphins at all – they’re actually porpoises, which also have a large local population within the Outer Banks waters. So how do you tell the difference? Look at the fins!

A porpoise’s fin looks is triangular, while a dolphin fin is curved, or hooked, on the center of its back. If you get close enough, you can also tell by their faces – dolphins tend to have long noses or “beaks” as opposed to a porpoise’s smaller mouth and spade-shaped teeth.

Where to Go: A Dolphin Tour or Your Own Backyard

As interest in the local dolphins has skyrocketed, a number of local inshore and nearshore charter businesses have started to offer special “dolphin tours” which will take visitors out to the inlets, as well as the waters just off the island, in search of these friendly creatures. These tours are a great way to get close to the critters, as they often bump against the boat as a curious greeting, and can be a family-friendly activity that everyone in the party will find simply unforgettable. Try a cruise aboard the Miss Hatteras out of Hatteras Village.

Visitors who want to see the dolphins without any effort other than stepping outside or looking out the window can also consider renting an oceanfront home. Often, dolphins can be spotted just past the breakers on a clear day, and can be especially prevalent in the morning and evening hours when the beaches are uncrowded, and the feeding is at its best. For a chance to spot dozens of dolphins at once, aim for a fall, winter or spring vacation. One of the best surprises of wintertime on Hatteras Island is that the dolphins and porpoises are in full force along the beaches, and it’s not unusual to spot 6, 10, or even a dozen cruising past the beach in a single speedy pack.

What to Do: Appreciate from Afar and Break Out the Camera 

While porpoises can get angry if they feel threatened, dolphins are seemingly curious about the other critters that share their waters. This is why inshore tour companies often have close encounters with the local dolphins, who will circle and cruise around the passengers, providing some excellent photo ops. Keep your distance, and keep your hands to yourself, but be ready to start snapping once the dolphins appear. Gregarious, friendly, and almost always traveling in groups, a pod of dolphins can be one of the best photo ops you’ll find along Hatteras Island.

The best tip for spotting dolphins? Keep your eyes on the water. Because a dolphin or porpoise fin can peek out of the blue horizon at any time – often for just a couple seconds – staying vigilant will go a long way. And after a day of looking, if the only thing you see in the miles of ocean waters are gulls, pelicans, and endless blue terrain, then you can still rest easy knowing that, at the very least, you enjoyed a beautiful day at the beach.