Hilton Head Island Wildlife Guide
Updated: Jul 21
On Hilton Head Island, natural beauty is everywhere you look. Our shores, waterways, and nature trails are more than enough to get the whole family off the couch and into the great outdoors. While you’re hiking, biking, or kayaking your way through the Island, you’re bound to come across some of Hilton Head Island’s locals—and not just the human variety, either.
Animal lovers flock to Hilton Head Island every year because of our unique and thriving ecosystem. We put together a list of common critters you’ll meet on while exploring with Hilton Head Outfitters, along with information on when and where are the best places to spot them. Enjoy!
Bottlenose dolphins hang out around Hilton Head Island’s shoreline. They’re friendly, intelligent, and aren’t afraid to pop up and say hello if you’re out on the water.
When to see them: It’s common to spot dolphins year-round on Hilton Head Island, but they’re super social in the summer—who isn’t?
Where to spot them: Hilton Head Island’s beachside accommodations—like Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort—are great places to start. They’re easy to spot bobbing around the sea. A paddleboard is an incredible way to experience a close encounter with these fun, frolicking creatures.
Hands off: It might be tempting to feed or bait a dolphin so they come a little closer to your boat—please don’t! These clever creatures are resourceful and find their grub all on their own.
ENDANGERED LOGGERHEAD SEA TURTLES
The endangered loggerhead sea turtle nests along Hilton Head Island’s sandy beaches. It’s not easy to spot one of these 400-pound giants—they choose our shores to lay their eggs late at night.
When to see them: Nesting and hatching season usually takes place from the beginning of May until the end of October this year.
Where to see them: During nesting and hatching season, sea turtles make our beaches home base. It’s pretty rare to spot a sea turtle because they come out during the darkest hours of the night. If you’re lucky enough to see one, keep your distance and leave the tracks and nesting area undisturbed. These endangered animals—some almost a century old—must be allowed to lay their eggs to ensure the survival of the species. The Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project staff patrol the shore each morning and document nesting.
Light’s out! During nesting and hatching season (the beginning of May until the end of October), houses and buildings visible from the beach turn off outdoor lights and close blinds or drapes at 10:00 p.m. The darkness helps turtles navigate, as they use the moonlight reflecting off the ocean’s surface to move towards the water. Inward brighter lights can disorient turtles.
Alligators are native to South Carolina and have lived here for millions of years. It’s not uncommon to spot one or two when you visit Hilton Head Island.
When to spot them: You’re most likely to see gators sunning themselves in the spring or fall. When summer’s heat is at its peak, they keep to cool waters. Who can blame them?
Where to spot them: You’ll find alligators lounging in and around Hilton Head Island’s lagoons.
Keep your distance: Hilton Head Island’s alligators aren’t aggressive by nature, but they can be dangerous if attacked or provoke. If you’re trying to snap a photo, use your zoom lens. Please don’t feed the alligators you see, and keep your pets on a leash when you’re around a lagoon.
According to the Audubon society, almost 200 species of birds—from egrets, to sandpipers, to wood storks—flock to the lakes, marshes, and shoreline of Hilton Head Island. In the last ten years, more than 350 species have been spotted—that’s enough to keep any birdwatcher busy!
When to spot them: With such a variety of birds around, you’re likely to spot one no matter the season!
Where to spot them: Hilton Head Island’s nature trails and marshes are a great place to start. See how many you can spot while paddling the Palmetto Dunes lagoon! The Hilton Head Island Audobon Society offers a birding guide that includes a checklist if you want to keep track of who you spot on vacation.
Notable species: The snowy egret, large blue heron, osprey, white ibis, and cattle egrets are all species to keep an eye out for. Another honorable mention? The cattle egret. They first arrived on the Island in 1954—quite a change from their original South American habitat!
There’s close to a dozen species of fish in the lagoon at Hilton Head Outfitters alone! No wonder fishing is one of our favorite past times.
When to spot them: Spawning season is your best chance to see most fish in Hilton Head Island, but thanks to the thriving lagoon system at Palmetto Dunes, you could spot a fish no matter the time of year! Check out our guide to the fish of Palmetto Dunes Lagoon.
Cast a line: There are several catch and release fishing charters on Hilton Head Island. You can head to Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina for an outstanding fishing trip with Captain Miles Altman or book in with our very own Captain Trent Malphrus who offers incredibly fun fishing excursions on the lagoon where you’re virtually guaranteed to reel one in!
THERE’S MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM
We’ve mentioned your wildlife viewing staples, but there’s more to keep an eye out for when you embark on an outdoor adventure with us. Hilton Head Island is also home to deer, bobcats, otters, minks, and even a few wild boars! The best way to view our wildlife? Get outside. Bike our trails or kayak our waterways, and your chances of running into our locals are looking good.
Always keep your camera at the ready, and remember to respect the animals you come across. We’re so lucky to enjoy such a thriving natural environment, it’s important that we treasure it.