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'It was a privilege to have had him': A farewell to Fungie, Dingle's beloved wild dolphin

‘The dolphin’, as locals called him, went missing in October and has left Dingle residents heartbroken.

Image: Sean Manion/Photocall Ireland

THE WONDER AND awe Fungie caused by his unusually friendly behaviour hasn’t abated since he arrived in Dingle harbour in 1983.

The wild bottle-nosed dolphin seemed to seek out human company: he would join swimmers and kayakers in the sea and seemed to pose in photographs with them; he would swim right up next to boats, and flip in the air right in front of them.

For the next 37 years, he would hardly ever leave Dingle Bay. Over 10 boat tours were set up and promised visitors a sighting of Fungie – he would almost always deliver.

The locals loved him and appreciated the boost he gave to their area. A statue was erected in his honour in Dingle town, numerous events were held in 2014 to mark 30 years since he first arrived, and he also set a Guinness World Record for the oldest solitary wild dolphin in the world. 

But this year he left the harbour, and left locals from An Daingean a little heartbroken. 

Fishermen’s bond with the dolphin

RTÉ and Nuacht TG4 reporter Seán Mac an tSíthigh told TheJournal.ie that locals had “a very, very deep attachment with that dolphin”.

“Especially in the early years when you had a lot of people swimming with Fungie and he was associated with with curative powers and various things like that – people built up relationships with the dolphin.”

He said that fishermen saw Fungie as a mascot of sorts as they left for the seas to carry out what is often a dangerous job.

Fishermen are heading out to sea and the last thing they saw leaving the safety of the harbour was Fungie. 
And then on return, happy to be back in from maybe heavy seas out in the Atlantic, and Fungie is there to greet them on their return. So they had a little bond with him as well.

fungie-the-dolphin-in-the-dingle-peninsula-on-the-kerry-coast-of-ireland The anniversary to mark 30 years of Fungie in Dingle in 2013. Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland

“I’m 43 now, and I was five I think when he came, so my generation had grown up [with him]. We’ve always had Fungie in the mouth of the harbour. And anyone younger than me obviously is in the same frame of mind.

So there is a deep, deep attachment with the dolphin. He’s very as much a part of Dingle as say, Paddy Bawn Brosnan, the Kerry footballer, or Wran’s Day on 26 December. He was central to the town’s identity, and because of that, there was a great fondness for him. 

Fungie has helped establish Dingle as a major tourist destination at this stage, he says – but today’s Dingle was no longer reliant on him as it had been in the early days.

“I think that the town and and the peninsula in general is on fairly solid footing and has been developed an awful lot since Fungie arrived,” he says. “From an economic and tourism point of view, they’ll be able to absorb the hit – it’s more a sadness [at] the end of an era.”

fungie-the-dolphin-missing Postcards featuring Fungie in Dingle, Co Kerry. Source: PA

‘Three generations have known Fungie’

Mary O’Neill, who has owned Dingle Boat Tours for 20 years, said that Fungie’s absence was a “heartbreaking loss” for the bay.

“So many people are fond of him, it’ll be lonely without him.”

Asked about whether she was worried for next year, Mary said “Not that we’d be worried – we won’t be doing Fungie boat trips, but we’ll do the Blasket, Sea Life Rib and Harbour Tours – but there’s a pit in your stomach when you remember he’s not there.”

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“It’s not just the business side of it,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think it will affect Dingle’s tourism industry.

Three generations of my family have known Fungie – my father, my brother and me, and my children. Thirty seven years.
It was a privilege to have had him in Dingle. He was a comfort and joy to everyone.

She said that she doesn’t think he’ll be coming back, but it would be good to have some “closure” to it: “What happened? Where did he go? Did he go away to die?”

‘The dolphin gave people an option to make a living in Dingle’

Breandán Fitzgerald, a Fianna Fáil councillor in Dingle, said that the Government should set up a taskforce to help figure out how to help boat tour operators that relied on Fungie. 

He has estimated that between 50-100 full-time jobs could be lost following Fungie’s departure.

He also said that the Department of Tourism and the Department of Agriculture and the Marine could set up a cultural centre similar to The Great Blasket Centre and Island could represent the history of Fungie’s 37 years in Dingle harbour.

“People could get a bigger appreciation of how we have to coexist with marine life,” he said, adding that it could enhance marine tourism in the area.

The fishermen were the ones who looked after the dolphin the best – not that they’d pat the dolphin or fed him or anything like that.
What the dolphin gave was people could stay here, people had a choice. They can go, of course, but they can stay too. Even through the recessions, people could always make a living here in the tourist industry… because of the dolphin.

Boatmen made a living for themselves, Fitzgerald says, they created a marine eco-tourism sector for themselves, and now they need some support and guidance. 

Whenever you said you were from Dingle, they would always say “Oh, the dolphin!” and a smile would automatically [appear] on their face.

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