DINGLE, Ireland — The summer visitors have gone and the winter rains and wind have reclaimed County Kerry, a remote and beautiful region in the southwest of Ireland. But the residents of Dingle, accustomed to all that, have an even bigger worry: Fungie, the resident male, bottlenose dolphin that helped transform it from a small fishing and farming community into a global tourist destination, has vanished after 37 years.
Two weeks after the last confirmed sighting of Fungie, boats still go out every day — storms and ocean swell permitting — to search the rocky coast for signs of the missing dolphin. At the narrow mouth of the harbor, where he spent most of his time, people with binoculars scan the waves for a glimpse of his dorsal fin. Yet, hope is diminishing.
Kevin Flannery, a marine biologist who built a popular aquarium on the back of the Fungie phenomenon, said the dolphin had gone missing before, but only ever for a day or two.
“That’s why the tourist boats could afford to offer you your money back if you went out and didn’t see him,” he said. “He was very reliable. This doesn’t look good.”
“What’s happening here is a bereavement,” said Caroline Boland, a spokeswoman for the Dingle Peninsula Tourism Alliance. “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.”
Solitary dolphins — ones that live alone, and sometimes settle in one area, rather than range the seas in sociable pods — are not unusual. But Fungie, estimated to be over 40 years old, was remarkable both for his longevity — the median age of a bottle nose dolphin in the wild is believed to vary between eight and 17 years — and his friendliness to swimmers and boats. He was first noticed in Dingle harbor in 1983, but it was several years before he gained national fame in the Irish news media, and then his reputation spread abroad.
County Kerry was already a global tourist destination, thanks to its rolling green hills, barren mountains and rugged, wave-battered coast. But most visitors favored the southern stretches of the county, in particular the famous “Ring of Kerry” around Killarney and Kenmare. In Dingle, Fungie is widely credited with adding Kerry’s northernmost peninsula to the mainstream tourism map.
“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,” said Ms. Boland of the tourism alliance, noting that emigration was high and jobs scarce.
“Back then, all the businesses would close from Halloween to Easter. But then artists and creative people started coming here to settle,” she said. “National Geographic did a piece on him. Chefs came and opened good restaurants. The sustainable jobs came after him.”
As well as commerce, the dolphin also spawned legends. Not long after he came to national prominence, a Dublin newspaper reported rumors that a rival Kerry village was attempting to lure him away by bribing him with fish. But, said Michael O’Neill of Dingle Boat Tours, one of two groups that operate dolphin-spotting trips in the harbor, Fungie always insisted on catching his own mackerel and pollock, which may have been his undoing.
“He was slowing down a bit lately, so maybe he couldn’t catch them any more,” Mr. O’Neill said. “But he would never take a fish from you, not even a live one.”
Another popular myth sought to account for Fungie’s remarkable longevity by insinuating that there have been three different dolphins, one after the other, with local businesses conspiring to maintain the Fungie brand.
But experts say that solitary dolphins show up infrequently and at random, and not all are so friendly. The people of Doolin, another scenic coastal resort up the coast in County Clare, were delighted when Dusty, a female dolphin, settled in the area over 20 years ago, but later had to put up warning signs when she began ramming and injuring swimmers.
Dingle’s lucrative dolphin-watching industry — a dozen boats charged up to €15, or about $18, per adult and €8, or about $9.50, per child for an hourlong trip to watch Fungie play in the water — will be the immediate victim if he is gone. But operators are trying to be philosophical.
“Of course, our income will be down, but that’s life,” said Mary O’Neill, also of Dingle Boat Tours, whose father operated the very first Fungie-watching trips. “We always knew this day would come, that he wouldn’t be around forever. We’ll find some other way.”
Despite the coronavirus lockdown, the darkening skies and the loss of its beloved mascot, there is still optimism in Dingle. On a storm-lashed Saturday night, the Reel Dingle fish and chips restaurant, one of the few businesses still open, though only for takeaway, was doing a brisk trade for local customers lured by high-end specialties like monkfish and calamari, fresh off the boats.
“He’s been gone before, but there’s never been this much hysteria,” said Colm Ó Treasaigh, bagging up orders for customers waiting in the rain. “It’ll be hard on the boats, but we’ll probably be OK.”
“He came with the tide,” said a young man who was operating the deep fryer at the back of the store. “What comes with the tide, goes with the tide.”
Fungie may have put Dingle on the map, but few local people expect the tourist traffic to fall off again when he’s gone. The peninsula today teems with local festivals and attractions.
Graham Coull, a Scot who came to Dingle as master distiller at the town’s new whiskey and gin distillery, said he believes the tourism infrastructure built on the Fungie phenomenon will survive him.
“He brought people to Dingle, and with us being a visitor attraction too, the Dingle Distillery benefited from the footfall,” he said. “But this is a resilient town, and they’ll bounce back.”
At the narrow mouth of the harbor, Ilonka Duignan was eating ripe wild blackberries and watching the waves. A yoga instructor of German and Hungarian descent, she came to Dingle from Berlin 40 years ago, “for love,” she said, and made it her home. She recalled her first encounter with Fungie, on the narrow beach just below where she stood, not long after he arrived.
“I was swimming in here and suddenly he appeared,” she said, adding that the dolphin came close enough to let her touch him. “He was very tame. We’d knock stones together under the water and he’d come to us when he heard.”
Like many other local people, she thought it would be fitting for Fungie to slip away like this, quietly and unseen, right at the end of one last summer season. No one wanted to find him washed up on the beach.
“It’s good that there’s a mystery to it,” she said. “He’s gone back to the wild, and I hope that he’ll never be found. Or that he’ll come back. One or the other.”