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Fungie: The missing dolphin who became an Irish star

By Amy Stewart

media captionMissing Fungie 'is more than just a dolphin'

"He is woven into the fabric and identity of the town."

It's not every day that an entire town launches a search operation for a dolphin.

But Fungie, a 37-year-mainstay of Dingle Harbour in County Kerry, is more than just an animal to the locals.

The bottlenose dolphin, who was first sighted in the 1980s, is the focus of an entire tourism industry and a beloved part of the texture of the town, which touches the Atlantic Ocean on Ireland's south-west coast.

But his disappearance last Tuesday prompted an extensive search that was paused on Monday due to bad weather.

Journalist Seán Mac an tSíthigh, who is from Dingle, said the little marine mammal is more than a tourist attraction to the people who live there.

Fungie made his first appearance in the area in the autumn of 1983.

"Paddy Ferriter, the old lighthouse keeper living at the mouth of the harbour, was the first fella to spot the dolphin," said Seán, who works for Irish broadcasters RTÉ and TG4.

He said there was "a bit of curiosity" but the general consensus from the old fishermen at the harbour was that "there's storm on the way - he'll be gone next week".

But he wasn't gone the following week. He stayed and he stayed.

"Almost from the outset, he had the urge and eagerness to interact with humans," said Seán.

image copyrightNuala Moore
image captionNuala Moore on a training session

Pádraig Whooley, sightings officer for the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), said that while solitary bottlenose dolphins are not unheard of, Fungie is different.

"It's not hugely unusual for them to seek out an area and stay there for a while but to spend practically their entire adult life in one little harbour is really exceptional," he said.

In 2019, he was named the oldest solitary dolphin in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Nuala Moore, an extreme swimmer from Dingle, described Fungie as her "training buddy".

She started swimming aged four so for her entire life "he has been there".

'Tremendous grá for Fungie'

Nuala has particularly appreciated him over the last 10 years when she has been involved in long cold water swimming events.

"That is my swimming pool and having another living breathing animal in there who just trots alone with you in the winter is a lovely feeling - just that someone else is breathing with you in the water," she said.

There are a few theories as to why Fungie chose to make Dingle his home - and thereby bringing the quiet fishing town to fame.

image copyrightNuala Moore

"Some say he may have been an orphan, that his mum died at sea - that he just came into the harbour feeling it was safe place to be," said Seán.

Pádraig Whooley says it is possible Fungie may have been between five and 10 years old when he was first spotted.

Seán, 42, who was five when Fungie arrived, said there is a tremendous grá (the Irish word for love) for the little dolphin locally.

He said the dolphin has become "part of that cultural tapestry" and is "part of Dingle's identity, part of the fabric and story of the town".

"He is known throughout the world and because Fungie is known, Dingle is known - and he is a source of great pride for those of us who live here on the peninsula," he added.

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image copyrightNuala Moore
image captionNuala Moore says Fungie would always pause to allow pictures to be taken - "a perfect model"

"In the 80s the economic conditions were quite poor in Ireland - Fungie generated an interest in the area and tourists came."

There are 12 boats operating on a daily basis, as well as gift shops and pubs which use his moniker.

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But what could have happened to him?

At the very youngest, Fungie is 37 but whatever his age, Pádraig Whooley said that "for a male dolphin he would definitely have had his free bus pass at this age".

"He was heading into the twilight of his life but it is very unusual for him to be gone this long," said Seán.

"He has been missing for very short periods in the past - maybe a day at the most."

'Self-isolating from the strangers'

He added that hope is kept alive by another theory centring on marine activity.

Easterly winds tend to drive feed further out to sea and there is a hope he may have gone out to chase that feed.

Last week, a humpback and a few pods of dolphins came in unusually close to the shore.

As Fungie is a solitary creature another theory is that he could have gone into hiding - "self-isolating from the strangers".

A team of divers has carried out an extensive search and boats have continued to search covering a 12km (7.4m) stretch of sea along the west Kerry coast.

Fishermen, accustomed to the reassuring sight of Fungie, have taken the loss hard.

One of the fishermen Seán spoke to at the weekend summed him up with one line: "He gave so much and he asked for so little."

Related Topics

  • Republic of Ireland
  • Dolphins

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