As fears grew in recent days that Dingle may have to imagine a life after Fungie – the dolphin who has effectively become West Kerry’s mascot since first arriving into Dingle the early 1980s – those who’ve come to know him best over the last five decades insist that his value to them goes far beyond monetary matters.
Jimmy Flannery of Dingle Sea Safari – and Chairman of Dingle Dolphin Tours, which encompasses six boats dedicated to Fungie tours – told The Kerryman this week that his first experience of carrying passengers out the harbour to see Dingle’s most famous resident was in the late 1980s, skippering his brother’s boat when he was just 16.
It was a few years before the Dingle Boatmen’s Association formed and further tapped into the potential of such visits, but it was a few years after Mr Flannery’s earliest encounters with the dolphin.
“I was fishing with my brother in around ’86, ’87, and when we came in for the dinner, my mother would ask if the dolphin was still hanging around the entrance to the harbour,” he told The Kerryman.
“I have a vivid memory of the first time seeing him and being in awe of this amazing creature coming right alongside the boat and being so curious in what we were doing.
“It’s impossible to put a monetary value on him, and it’s not something I’m at all comfortable with. He’s part of my life. I would not care if he showed up over in Valentia and stayed there for the rest of his life, once he was okay. The money side of it means nothing whatsoever. I’m looking for a member of the family.
“People have to respect that. People will have to get their head around it that this is bigger than money; it’s part of Dingle. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s difficult to talk about it.”
Mary O’Neill of Dingle Boat Tours – which has two boats going full-time on Fungie tours, with a further two carrying out tours when needed – explained that her father, Martin, started out with carrying passengers to see Fungie in 1983, when the dolphin first arrived to Dingle.
In the interim, she said he has brought immeasurable happiness to locals and non-locals alike on their trips out to sea, and she said that the past week – since being informed by couple Jeannine Masset and Rudi Schamhart that it had been two days since they’d seen the friend they’ve been boating out to see for some 30 years – has been a rollercoaster.
“It started out in 1983, and my father was the first person to take people out to see Fungie,” she told The Kerryman. “My family, including my brothers and husband, have been steeped in Fungie visits in some way or other from the start until now.
“He’s always been there, and I’m thinking to myself, now that we don’t know where he is, why I didn’t appreciate him more. But we’re so lucky to have had such a special bond with a wild dolphin for 37 years.
“It’s a sad harbour out there for the last four days. You can feel that he’s not there.”
Ms O’Neill said her first memories of the famous dolphin stem from heading out on boat trips with her father.
“We’d swim off the boat, and I remember the fear of entering the water,” Ms O’Neill said. “Seeing him there, this big, wild dolphin right there. It was just a brilliant feeling.
“The worry is where he is, how he is. Is he okay? Has he suffered? Is he injured? Maybe he has gone off with a pod of dolphins. That’s what I’d like to think – but I just don’t know.
“Whatever has happened, we can be thankful that he chose Dingle harbour, he chose the boats, he chose the people. If he has gone, he has had a good life. Three generations in Dingle have had a connection with him.”