The people of Dingle are distraught; it’s been two weeks now, and an old friend is still missing from the small Irish town. On October 13, 2020, the individual named Fungie was spotted for what would prove to be the last time. Now a fortnight later, things are looking bleak. After spending 37 long years in Dingle, it seems that this famous bottlenose dolphin has vanished for good.
The Dingle residents’ reaction to Fungie’s disappearance shows just how fond they were of this beautiful dolphin. All this time after he was last spotted and people are still sailing out to sea in search of him. And along the shoreline, people are scanning the horizon with the help of binoculars. But there’s just no sign of him.
Kevin Flannery operates the Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium, so he’s more than familiar with Fungie’s presence in the village’s waters. But the marine biologist was clearly worried when he spoke to The New York Times. Flannery explained that Fungie had disappeared in the past – but never for more than a couple of days. The scientist added, “He was very reliable. This doesn’t look good.”
Dingle is located in County Kerry, which is itself situated in the southwest of Ireland. Before Fungie, Kerry at large was a big tourist spot, but Dingle specifically was often overlooked. But the village was transformed when a dolphin started showing up in the harbor. People flocked there to catch a glimpse of him, and a whole tourism industry was born as a result.
But the loss of Fungie isn’t just about falling tourism revenues. Caroline Boland from the Dingle Peninsula Tourism Alliance told The New York Times, “What’s happening here is a bereavement. People are devastated to think he might be gone. It’s like a member of the family dying. He brought magic, and he inspired us – this beautiful wild creature who lived at the mouth of the harbor.”
It’s no surprise that people in Dingle have grown so attached to Fungie. After all, the fact that he stuck around for as long as he did is truly unique. There have been other instances of singular dolphins deciding to make a given area their home – but rarely for this long. In fact, bottlenose dolphins are generally believed to live for less than 20 years. But Fungie was thought to be older than 40 at the time of writing, according to the newspaper.
But who was the lucky soul to first spot him? Well, local lighthouse keeper Paddy Ferriter was reportedly the first person to lay eyes on the mammal all the way back in 1983. According to The New York Times, Fungie took a liking to the area and regularly swam alongside ships coming in and out of port. He was soon recognized as a lasting citizen of Dingle, and his presence began drawing visitors to the village.
The fact that Fungie kept returning to the harbor in those early days, however, was something of a surprise. Initially, it seems, there was a general agreement in the area that he’d soon disappear again. Though as the days, weeks and eventually years passed by, the dolphin stuck around.
Locals believe that the bottlenose dolphin had reached adulthood by the time he showed up in Dingle. He measured somewhere close to 13 feet in length and weighed around 500 pounds, according to the Dingle Boat Tours website. And not only are the species beautiful to look at and popular with aquariums, they’re also known to be very intelligent.
Fungie was known to frequent a particular part of the Dingle coast – an area between the center of the village’s harbor and its lighthouse. The dolphin appeared to enjoy toying with ships in that space, though he would apparently sometimes venture further afield on the hunt for salmon.
Dingle harbor was to be Fungie’s home for almost four decades, which is extremely strange. Pádraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group told the BBC, “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 harbor is really exceptional.”
Having lived in Dingle harbor for so long, Fungie came to be easily recognizable to the locals. But that’s not to suggest that he didn’t have his secrets! For instance, Fungie’s life before his time spent in the town is a mystery. And nobody really knows the reasons for him showing up and remaining in the village.
Though some theories have been put forward to explain Fungie’s presence there. Speaking to the BBC, a journalist from Dingle named Seán Mac an tSíthigh laid one out. He said, “Some say he may have been an orphan, that his mom died at sea – that he just came into the harbor feeling it was [a] safe place to be.”
As we’ve seen, Fungie spent most of his time away from other dolphins. Yet he did apparently meet some on occasion. Smithsonianmag.com notes that he would sometimes appear in Dingle bearing so-called “tooth-rake marks,” which had been left by his brethren. This might sound dramatic, but it’s apparently a sign of amicable encounters!
Yet Fungie’s interactions with humans changed somewhat over the years. At first, he was quite comfortable swimming with people. But as time passed and new swimmers came to replace the older ones, the publication says that he became a little more apprehensive. Still, he did surface when bodyboarders were in the water, and he played around with kayakers, too.
Generally, though, Fungie seemed to like swimming in the vicinity of tourist boats most of all. In particular, he enjoyed jumping in the waves created by the vessels. And as the mammal drifted into old age, he tended to opt for this rather than buddying up with individual swimmers.
Luckily for the dolphin, there were plenty of tourist boats in action for him to swim and play around. During the summertime, thousands of people would descend upon Dingle in the hope of seeing Fungie. This gave the creature a chance to show off in front of the excited visitors.
The Dingle Peninsula Tourism Alliances’ Caroline Boland spoke to The New York Times about how the dolphin had impacted her village. She remarked, “When Fungie came 37 years ago it was a real backwater. There was nothing here but fishing and farming, and they were both in decline.”
Discussing the boost to the local economy caused by Fungie, Boland went on, “Back then, all the businesses would close from Halloween to Easter. But then artists and creative people started coming here to settle. National Geographic did a piece on him. Chefs came and opened good restaurants. The sustainable jobs came after him.”
Fungie had become an Irish celebrity. And with fame, of course, comes rumors. At one stage, a Dublin newspaper reported that another seaside village in the region was trying to coerce Fungie to leave Dingle and come to their area by offering him fish. Whether this is true or not, however, it apparently never would have worked. Apparently, Dingle residents claim the dolphin only ate sealife that he caught himself.
Another legend posited that Fungie had actually been replaced by a number of different dolphins, according to The New York Times. This, the theory went, accounted for his unusually old age. The conspiracy supposedly involved locals who wanted to capitalize on the tourist money he brought to the area. Of course, there’s nothing to suggest that this is true.
But it’s easy to see how such a rumor could have developed – given how fruitful Fungie was to the Dingle economy. Some tour boats that would take customers to see the dolphin cost as much as $18, the newspaper notes. And besides that, stores in the village made money selling dolphin-related merchandise like toys and T-shirts.
Yet the people of Dingle are proud that Fungie chose their village to be his home. And as the dolphin got older, they made sure that they respected his needs. For instance, when his behavior seemed a little off in the summer of 2017, the companies running tour boats apparently stopped their excursions to give him some space.
Over the last few years, though, it was becoming increasingly clear that Fungie’s time in Dingle would soon come to an end. After all, the dolphin had already far outlived what could reasonably be expected for his species. The community started to brace itself for his loss, and some companies based around the dolphin started diversifying their services.
Sadly, the dreaded day finally came in the autumn of 2020. On October 13 Fungie was sighted for what would prove to be the final time. When he didn’t resurface the following day, locals knew something was up. He tended to return to the harbor everyday, so this was something noteworthy. From there, with every day that passed without a sighting, the less likely it became that he’d ever return.
The Dingle community nonetheless initiated a search for the dolphin, and boats started setting sail to look for him. On land, meanwhile, people scanned the horizon with binoculars. This went on for at least a fortnight following Fungie’s disappearance, but all efforts were in vain. Fungie was apparently gone.
But that begged the question: what had happened to Fungie the dolphin? Well, the BBC notes that winds sweeping east forced fish away from land towards the open ocean. And Fungie may have followed these creatures in order to feed. Or maybe the mammal had finally decided that he wanted some alone time after all these years.
But these theories ignore the elephant in the room. Fungie was, after all, an old dolphin. He couldn’t have been any younger than 37, and he could have been up to 45 years old. As Seán Mac an tSíthigh eloquently told the British broadcaster, “He was heading into the twilight of his life…”
Regardless of whether he was 37 or 45, Fungie had reportedly been acting in recent times as an older dolphin might. More to the point, he couldn’t have been expected to live for too much longer anyway. But we still can’t say for sure what actually happened to him.
Generally speaking, we don’t know much about what causes dolphins and related species to perish in the wild. But according to UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme project manager Rob Deaville, about 20 percent lose their lives because of human influence on the marine environment. Roughly the same amount die from causes unrelated to man – like conflict with other animals. Yet for all the others, we don’t really have a clue.
Research fellow emeritus at Australia’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation Mike Bossley told Hakai Magazine that old dolphins likely pass away from conditions similar to us humans. He said that they probably experience conditions such as cancer, heart failure and even arthritis, which could prevent them from being able to fish.
But what happens to a dolphin’s body after it has passed? Bizarrely, the answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as you might think! It turns out that only a small minority of dolphins ever end up washing up on the seashore. And we don’t really know what happens to the rest.
Speaking to Lonely Planet, Padraig Whooley explained, “When bottlenose dolphins die, they tend not to wash up. There’s a population of nearly 200 bottlenose dolphins in the Shannon Estuary – near Dingle – with about a 96 percent survival rate year on year. That means 4 percent die each year. Yet in almost 30 years studying them, only a tiny number – about three dolphins – have actually washed up. When the vast majority die – presumably of natural causes – they tend to disappear. It does seem to be a quirk of dolphins.”
So, given that most dolphins never reach land after they’ve perished, it may be that Fungie has vanished for good. In the immediate aftermath of his disappearance, some of the people that had come to know him in Dingle were still hopeful of a return. And even as time went on, people held onto the hope that “no news is good news,” according to Lonely Planet.
Caroline Boland summed up how the Dingle community was feeling in the wake of Fungie’s disappearance. She told the travel publication, “Our community is devastated by the loss of Fungie and the magic, joy and wonder that he brings to our local families, our children and our visitors alike. He is such a special part of our families and community and our worry and sadness for him is immense.”
Another Dingle resident named Jimmy Flannery expressed a similar sentiment. And he, like many others, hadn’t given up just yet. The Dingle Sea Safari manager said, “We just live in hope. I won’t be able to pass by a pod of bottlenose dolphins ever again without looking to see if our beloved Fungie is in the middle of them. It is unlikely, but, just like a family member you’re never going to be ready to just give up and give in and accept that we’re never going to see him again.”
Flannery concluded, “[Fungie] was wild and free. As far as I’m concerned, we’ll always believe he’s swam off into the sunset.” Indeed, it might be said that this is the perfect end for Dingle’s time with Fungie. As suddenly as he’d first arrived, the dolphin disappeared – leaving only fond memories and a village in better shape than before he arrived.
One of the people who directly benefitted from Fungie’s presence is Dingle Boat Tour organizer Mary O’Neill. Speaking to The New York Times, she remarked, “Of course, our income will be down, but that’s life. We always knew this day would come, that he wouldn’t be around forever. We’ll find some other way.”
Despite the loss of the dolphin, O’Neill’s optimism appears to be broadly representative of Dingle at large. Graham Coull – who works at a distillery in the village – also sees a bright future for the community. He said, “[Fungie] brought people to Dingle… But this is a resilient town, and they’ll bounce back.”
Fungie did a lot for the town of Dingle, but its people feel they can continue without him. And despite the sadness of his loss, his end feels fitting. As one unnamed man remarked to a New York Times journalist, “[Fungie] came with the tide. What comes with the tide, goes with the tide.”