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Star of the sea Dingle devastated as search boats and divers fail to find Fungie in his favourite harbour


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A search team at sea led by Dingle OceanWorld marine biologist Kevin Flannery on the Lady Laura

A search team at sea led by Dingle OceanWorld marine biologist Kevin Flannery on the Lady Laura

A search team at sea led by Dingle OceanWorld marine biologist Kevin Flannery on the Lady Laura

As the boat slowly chugs in circles, creating a rolling wave in the Atlantic, the familiar flash of dorsal fin breaking through the water is nowhere to be seen.

This churning surf is the cue for Fungie to race alongside the vessel, sometimes showing the quicksilver of his back or bow riding the waves and occasionally leaping clean through the air.

An hour earlier, the crew of the Lady Laura had fired up their engines in Dingle Harbour to follow up a lead of an early morning sighting of a lone dolphin out near the cascading waterfall on the way out to the Blasket Islands off the Kerry coast this week.

The 72-seater craft throttles up and down by the rocks below Slea Head where a fisherman stands beside his parked white van on the cliffside, marking the spot where he had glimpsed a dorsal fin minutes earlier.

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Fungie was a popular sight off the Kerry coast

Fungie was a popular sight off the Kerry coast

Fungie was a popular sight off the Kerry coast

But there is an eerie stillness to the water in the wintry sunshine, only broken by a seal briefly poking his head through the surface.

"There is a sadness today," says Violeta Grebliuniene, who has been working on the Lady Laura for the last three years. "Normally we are so happy going to the Blaskets."

Curious

From her lookout point at the wheelhouse more than a week into his disappearance, she tells of her hope that Fungie has gone off to mate with a female seen around the bay before his disappearance.

Over 37 years, Fungie has become the star attraction in the Kerry town as he shunned other dolphins to playfully interact with curious day-trippers.

His disappearance has been completely out of character for the mammal, who only ever went missing for hours at a time. While dive and boat searches are normally reserved for missing humans, it feels fitting to Dingle residents.

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A search team get set to go to sea lead by Tom Hand from Dingle on his boat the Lady Laura.

A search team get set to go to sea lead by Tom Hand from Dingle on his boat the Lady Laura.

A search team get set to go to sea lead by Tom Hand from Dingle on his boat the Lady Laura.

"He deserves it," says Violeta. "He's very, very special."

The Lady Laura and the Lady Breda, both owned by Tom Hand, have carried thousands of excited sightseers to Fungie's small patch of ocean in the harbour he first visited in 1983.

As we speed out to the bay in search of any sign of Fungie, Tom points to the last patch of land. "Beenbawn Head is as far as he would go," says Tom.

Standing in the cabin next to an emerald mural of the 15-foot bottlenose dolphin, he talks about the palpable sense of loss.

"We didn't realise how much a part of the community he actually was, people talked about him as another person, one of the locals, one of the characters if you like," he says wistfully.

Tom, who works in marine electronics alongside running Dingle Boat Tours, was among the first boatmen to run trips to see the dolphin back in the late 1980s.

"I've been going out since I'm 26. On the last few trips, he would bring a smile to your face, even 35 years later. The harbour looks empty, he was always there.

"There's nothing better than to see kids screaming when he comes up, the parents would be laughing, it would lift your heart," said Tom, recalling that the dolphin was particularly drawn to the sounds of high-pitched youngsters.

"He brought a lot of joy," said Tom, whose brother Paul had the last sighting of Fungie last Thursday.

There are many theories as to why Fungie has officially become the longest living solitary dolphin in the world, but Tom Hand believes he may have strayed in with his sick mother 37 years ago.

"There was supposed to be a female dolphin, presumably his mother, washed up on the beach down there, and they reckon he stayed around looking for the mother."

In those early days, he would spend hours playing with local divers every evening.

"I think in a short time, this was his world. The funny thing is he is here 37 years, and nobody really thought he'd last that long. From 1983 it took three and four years before he became popular.

"I suppose it was the late '80s and early '90s before you had a lot of TV crews from all over the world, every summer there would be 10 or 15 crews coming to do stuff on him and then it kicked off."

Colourful

In Dingle OceanWorld, across from the harbour, the director, marine biologist Kevin Flannery, says the town is grappling with the loss amid the pandemic.

"With the combination of the pandemic and the dolphin disappearing, people are wondering is there anything else that can happen," he said.

Over the past four decades, Kevin has watched all sorts of colourful characters descending on the town looking for encounters with the wild bottlenose dolphin who loved to play with the boats.

"The stories…", he remembers. "We had a professor from Cambridge who brought over people suffering anorexia, depression, MS and everything else in the early '90s.

"It was called Operation Sunshine. When it was published in the Daily Mirror people came when they read it, thinking they would be cured.

"Hello! magazine did a six-page spread. I remember people living in a tepee near the lighthouse, there was a guy who drove into the sea in an amphibious jeep and opened the sunroof and got out swimming with the dolphin.

"I remember another guy playing saxophone up on a surfboard. Another fella went underwater playing the tin whistle.

"People have moved here from England and Holland because they are so enamoured with him, it takes over their lives."

Scientists followed the TV crews.

"People studying how often he was going to play, how often he blew out of the water, what fish he was catching," he recalled.

In recent years most of the 12 Fungie boats have diversified into eco-tours out to the bay, which is teeming with everything from seals and puffins, schools of dolphins and minke whales to the sight of a large humpback last week.

Tom Hand doesn't buy the theory that Fungie has gone off mating or hunting for such a long period.

"Maybe he's disoriented," he says.

"Without finding a body they'll never be closure, but maybe it's better that there's always a mystery.

"That he could be out there somewhere."

Sunday World


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