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Lack of porpoise Dingle gets ready to open up to tourists - six months after Fungie the dolphin disappeared

Dingle is ready to welcome its staycationers but its famous friend is gone

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Fungie leaping from the water to welcome boats in Dingle

Fungie leaping from the water to welcome boats in Dingle

Fungie leaping from the water to welcome boats in Dingle

The sea was like a sheet of glass the day John O'Connor saw a dorsal fin speeding directly towards him as he sat perched in a small punt.

Millimetres from the boat, Fungie veered past at a sharp angle before returning to take a high jump clean out over the bow.

In Kool Scoops ice cream parlour on the street across from Dingle Harbour this week, John O'Connor clearly remembers this first interaction with the dolphin with local marine biologist Kevin Flannery and his young daughter in 1983.

"It was when he arrived first when nobody knew about him. We were in a small little punt with a little outboard on a beautiful day in the month of May. There wasn't another boat in the water.

"We were put, putting out along and suddenly the boat just stopped and we took off and went backwards and then we stopped again. What had happened was Fungie was coming up underneath it and stopping the propeller.

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The Fungie statue in Dingle

The Fungie statue in Dingle

The Fungie statue in Dingle

"I remember we were at the mouth of the harbour and he was like Jaws coming at us, just a fin out of the water, at full speed and then turning millimetres of the boat, never slowing down. I can still see it.

"He was flipping around and jumping over the bow of the boat. None of us had a camera. I'll never ever forget it."

There are dozens of similar stories of magical encounters among the residents of Dingle but now, more than six months on from his disappearance, the town synonymous with the dolphin is adjusting to life without their much-loved resident of 37 years.

"There is a loss, there is a bit of a void. He was part of the furniture for so many years.

"There are adjustments on the way. It will be interesting to see how the boats will adjust.

"There is a great opportunity to do trips around the Blaskets, along the cliffs which are really something," said John this week.

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"I've had the privilege of being out on the rescue boat on numerous occasions and going back along there. It's like being in a different world."

In the end, Fungie slipped away from Dingle Harbour last autumn as enigmatically as he had appeared 37 year earlier.

Powering out through the waters in the pretty harbour on the edge of the Atlantic will never be the same for boat operator Jimmy Flannery. There is no flash of silver running alongside his rib or exuberant burst through the surface of 14 feet of muscled mammal.

But the pretty town turned on its head by the antics of a high-flipping dolphin is hoping staycationing visitors will continue to make trips out to the sea when the country opens up this summer.

Over the past four decades, an entire industry sprung up around the extraordinary mammal who exceeded every kind of expectation and parameter for a wild dolphin by staying faithfully in and around the harbour mouth since he arrived out of the blue in 1983.

While he is no longer eliciting high-pitched squeals from boatloads of tourists, his 37 years in the harbour saw Fungie single-handedly turn Dingle into a marine destination, a town synonymous with boat trips.

Jimmy Flannery, the boatman who memorably took daily trips to keep Fungie company during lockdown, saw the arrival of his latest sightseeing boat this week, one of his quartet of the most powerful ribs in Ireland which form Dingle's Sea Safari operation.

Six months on from Fungie's loss, he keenly feels the void every time he goes out into the harbour.

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The town of Dingle was synonymous with Fungie

The town of Dingle was synonymous with Fungie

The town of Dingle was synonymous with Fungie

"I have been taking people to see him all my adult life - over 33 years. I will never ever pass up and down that harbour without looking out for him, I know he's not there. But I still look out for him.

"We come across the bottlenose dolphins and I can't help but look to see if he's stuck in the middle of them. He came as mysterious as he went, we'll never know what happened.

"So there is always be that wonder and you know, will he possibly turn up again?"

In recent years, the boat operator had begun to diversify away from dolphin sightseeing into longer, more adventurous trips out to the Atlantic Ocean beyond the harbour along the caves and cliffs of the Dingle Peninsula, a place where Fungie rarely ventured.

"I suppose after such a long time, it was inevitable, it was closer to the end than the beginning.

"So that's why we started up the Sea Safari to carry on so that we'd have something afterwards. One day we were going to go there and he wasn't going to be there."

The trips take in the stunning beauty of Slea Head and wildlife from whales to puffins to dolphins, depending on the day.

"There is an abundance of sea life off the west coast of Ireland," said Jimmy.

"Last year there were more humpback whales seen than any other year. At the moment, we're seeing common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, we're seeing basking sharks, puffins and seals.

"It is an adventure no matter what you see. People get out, we wrap them up properly in good quality sailing gear.

"They're the biggest open ribs in the country and they're so comfortable.

"I have people from nine years old to over 90 years old and equally, they have just absolutely loved them. One man, who was 90, came back to me three times in the one year."

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John O’Connor of Kool Scoops

John O’Connor of Kool Scoops

John O’Connor of Kool Scoops

After his new boat, The Experience, arrived in the harbour this week from London he is hoping for a busy season.

"They are built for the coastguards and lifeboats, they are all-weather boats used all over the world. Of course we don't operate in any weather, but they're designed to basically get you through hell or high water.

"We're number one on TripAdvisor in the last two years. We have over 10,000 or 11,000 Instagram followers so we're doing something right.

"The word is out there. There is so much to see.

"The bookings are coming in. I would not be investing in a new boat if I didn't think people would come. People associate Dingle, at this stage because of Fungie, with boat trips."

It is an opportunity for other boat operators to diversify for the first time from dolphin- watching trips this year as Irish people will be staycationing.

"Once they get on the boat, if they have a good time, and it's a good product, people will come back. You will have a captive audience this year."

He was comforted by the observation from Dr Simon Berrow from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group in recent months that they had rarely seen any of the pod of Shannon dolphins washed up despite studying them for nearly 30 years.

Floated

"I found it an ease. They're pretty sure they must just swim off, and maybe into deep water and that's it, take a breath, and it's gone, you know, and it's over.

"If anything had happened to him, he would have floated and surfaced, anything other than natural causes. I think he took his last breath and went to the bottom. That's what I believe but then again my heart just wants to believe that he's out there somewhere."

The legacy of the link between the townspeople and the dolphin has been the discovery of the wonders of the ocean on their doorstep by millions of day-trippers over nearly four decades, not to mention the steady string of film crews and scientists.

"The Sea Safari is part of his legacy," said Jimmy Flannery this week.

"I'm so thankful to Fungie for all of that, without Fungie, Dingle Sea Safari would not exist or would not be the success of this today. We are carrying on life without our friend."

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