But suddenly, he’s gone. There has been no sign of him for more than a week, despite search-and-rescue missions and teams of divers checking the seabed. The intense activity and speculation have seemed more apropos of a high-profile missing-person case, with headlines about searches being “stood down due to bad weather” or “called off for the night.” On Thursday, some claimed “reported sightings” (all unverified).
The timing of this has felt especially cruel, coming on the eve of a second pandemic lockdown brought on by Ireland’s increasing number of coronavirus cases. Since midnight Wednesday, everyone has been ordered to stay within five kilometers of home. Nonessential shops are closed.
Maybe Fungie sensed the upcoming lockdown, some people have wondered in jest, and decided to make a run for it if he was going to have no visitors. A satirical news website repeatedly suggested that a series of bottlenose dolphins played his character over the years, at times demanding better pay and improved working conditions.
Marine biologist Kevin Flannery, director of Oceanworld Aquarium Dingle, says locals are upset for both emotional and economic reasons.
“We’re a small town of 2,000 people in the west of Ireland and virtually dependent on the tourist industry,” he noted Thursday. “Now, along with the pandemic, we have the disappearance of one of the biggest attractions.”
Fungie’s departure may be age-related, Flannery said. He was playing with humpback and minke whales at the mouth of the harbor on one of the last days he was seen. “They catch and scatter a lot of food, and it might have been easier to go with them. He might have then joined up with another pod of dolphins.”
Few of his fans want to consider another explanation. Dolphins lose agility as they grow old and are not as able to easily track food, the scientist explained. If Fungie’s ability to feed himself was compromised, that would be the end.
Another Flannery, Jimmy, was 12 when Fungie arrived in the bay. He launched the first Dingle Dolphin Tours in 1987. He saw Fungie most days each year between February and October. This spring, during the nation’s first lockdown, Flannery got official clearance despite the stay-at-home order to regularly check on Fungie and keep him company. The time was very special, he says.
He’s not sure if not knowing what has happened to the dolphin is better or worse.
“I always said that this was probably the best outcome we could have wished for, that Fungie would just slip away and disappear, that we wouldn’t have to watch him getting sick or the body washed up and dissected,” Jimmy Flannery said Thursday. “But that doesn’t make it any easier. It is like losing one of the family.”
The tour operator plans to continue running boat trips to show people the wildlife in the waters around the Blasket Islands. Bottlenose dolphins are common there and as for friendly, named ones, the country has had Dony of Dunquin, Dusty of Doolin (a.k.a. Sandy) and Duggie of Tory. But none of them stuck around as long.
Simon Berrew of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, a conservation and research organization, thinks Fungie’s fate may remain a mystery. He estimates that the beloved marine mammal was at least 40 years old, which is senior status for his kind. The formal searches have ceased. Bottlenose dolphins rarely wash up on shore.
“We will probably never see Fungie again and never really know if he’s dead or moved, but maybe that is the best way to go,” Berrew said.
If so, he leaves quite a legacy. According to Kevin Flannery, about half a million people a year saw Fungie. He delighted tour boat guests, kayakers, surfers, fishermen and others.
“This guy conquered the hearts of many millions,” drawing attention to the bay and the ocean beyond and the fragile future both face, Flannery said. “He has changed the mind-set of thousands of people. It’s amazing that one creature could do that.”