Texas Liberal

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Blog Readers Demand To Know—Dolphins In Houston’s Buffalo Bayou


I got a search engine hit on the blog today from someone looking to know about dolphins in Buffalo Bayou in Houston. Caring deeply about my public, I investigated this matter.

I found a discussion of the subject and other matters relating to Buffalo Bayou written by brilliant Texas A & M Assistant Professor of Forest Science Dr. Rusty Feagin.

I asked Dr. Feagin if I could use what he had written. He said yes and was nice enough to add a bit more. I’ve included what he added at the bottom.

The above photo is of where Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou meet. This is where Dr. Feagin once saw a dolphin.

Here is a link to Dr. Feagin’s Coastal Ecology Lab. I bet you learn a lot in that lab. 

Here is what he wrote—I used to work on Buffalo Bayou, driving a boat up and down the “bayuco” as several of us called it in Spanish.  I’m not sure I would characterize Buffalo Bayou as a tributary of the San Jacinto, they may connect at some point, but they are more of an estuary at that point in my opinion (in fact, doesn’t this happen below the ship channel?).

In fact, much of Buffalo Bayou is tidal. Spartina alterniflora, the salt marsh plant in the low-tidal zone, seems to cut off upstream of the connection with the San Jacinto, up closer to around Jensen/Runnels street. I’m not sure if that’s due to the change in salinity or the abrupt change in topography there (from more flat estuarine-like along the edges to a deeper, narrow channel)

Further up the bayou, I have witnessed a dolphin at the intersection of White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou, as several newspapers described back in the 90’s; there are certainly small alligators and big fish as far upstream as it goes.  FYI, there’s also a lot of submerged junk there, too.

There is flow to Buffalo Bayou, it is regulated by a dam up near Addick’s Reserviour, they can make it fast enough to make canoe races entertaining as evidenced by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s annual race. I don’t know of any spring-fed flow, I would find that very strange for this bayou in particular. Ground water certainly is a major contributor from adjacent urban areas, and major rains can cause a massive fish kill, I have an old picture of one if anyone’s interested.  I don’t know the name, but some folks at the University of Houston – Downtown have done a little work on that.

One can see evidence of flow from floods in the trees: there are characteristic water lines formed by trash hanging from the high points among the branches.I would say that historically, Buffalo Bayou probably drained the Katy Prairie, which should be somewhat more wet than it is today. Today, it drains Addick’s. Also, the areas adjacent to the Bayou were and are drained as well. 

In conclusion, there is flow generally towards Galveston Bay, but sometimes it reverses due to high tides and southeast winds, particularly in the summer. Thus, it is a brackish connection between the fresh upper reaches, and the lower saline/brackish estuary.

Dr. Feagin adds— By the way, when we saw the dolphin it was around March-June 1998 (if I had to guess I would say April, maybe May), some others also had seen it several days earlier and it was their sighting that was reported in the Chronicle.There’s also alligators there, we never saw any bigger than maybe 5 feet- they were mostly upstream from the aforementioned confluence of Buffalo/White Bayous.

There’s tons of big fish up there, it should be great fishing, but I would be scared to eat them. Lots of the homeless guys fish and I once saw a guy spearfishing with a cross-bow there, too.  I would imagine that with all those fish, it might be interesting to dolphins, and I know they love to go around the ships, boats, human constructed stuff, etc. so a little migration from the ship channel further upstream is not too crazy.


September 20, 2007 - Posted by | Houston, Sea Life


  1. On a brief visit to Houston some years ago, I believe I was treated to a quick glimpse of Buffalo Bayou as we did a tour of the area. This was not a dolphin-sighting day.

    My only real life glimpse of dolphins (outside of Sea World, hardly real life) occurred several years ago when I joined cousin Joyce and her son, Ricky, in sprinkling cousin Charlie’s ashes in the Pacific. Two dolphins jumped up, two brown pelicans flew overhead, we read poetry, sipped wine, and commended Charlie to the deep, perhaps a most fitting final place for Charlie who served on active duty in the U.S. Navy in both World War II, Pacific Theater, and the Korean War. That was the last time I saw Ricky, whom I often babysat for in Glens Falls and Lake George, NY. He was killed a few years later in a freak accident, a fate that had befallen his sister Christine many years before. Cousin Joyce, maid of honor at my parents’ wedding, is still going strong, despite many things that might have felled a lesser person. She, too, served in the Navy during WWII. She was a WAVE, stationed in Bermuda.

    As to the bayou itself, we have nothing like it where I live. Here in Cincinnati we have the Little Miami, the Great Miami, the Licking River, and the mighty Ohio. I believe there are catfish in the Ohio, perhaps in the Licking. I’d rather see a dolphin in Buffalo Bayou than contemplate what a catfish in the Ohio might look and taste like. I always wonder what happens to the people who fish for and then consume them here.

    Comment by Newton | September 25, 2007

  2. Thank you for this excellent comment.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | September 26, 2007

  3. Tried to email you – no success.

    Comment by Randy | July 14, 2008

  4. I was lucky enough to sight 3 dolphins in the Houston Ship Channel at the Lynchburg Ferry on July 21, 2012. One appeared to be an adult and dark grey. The other 2 were smaller and lighter in color. We did manage to get a video although not a very good one. It was very exciting. I have lived boated in the area for over 40 years and this is a first for me!

    Comment by Jane Riggs | July 25, 2012

  5. I used to have a sailboat in kemah, I used to always see dolphins when we went out into Galveston bay after the BP oil spill, I think they all came over here to avoid all the oil.

    Comment by Mike | September 23, 2014

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