Nothing fishy about Fungi

SKIPPER Tom Sheehy steered the MV Lady Laura towards Fungi, the world’s best-known, free-living dolphin, in Dingle Harbour.

Seeing nothing, I struggled to believe that the famed Fungi would appear so soon after my boat left port. I assumed it was part of the act, a ‘near-encounter’.

As we bobbed along, I recalled my editor! saying “I want you to track down this dolphin phenomenon. See what all the fuss is about. Surely, he’s not the same animal that first surfaced all those years ago.”

With that brief, I’d headed for Dingle.

My quest was to catch sight of Kerry’s water-borne mascot, and unravel the ‘legend’ a little. And now, I was sailing straight for him, with the minimum of effort, pondering under my breath: “This is just too easy ... he couldn’t be so close to shore. Treading water. Waiting for me.”

“There you go,” said the skipper. “Right there.” Mr Sheehy pointed starboard, and I craned my neck. And there Fungi was, riding alongside us, breaking the foam, just enough to tease out the notion he’d, indeed, come to meet both me and my boat. Dipping, tilting, arching and twisting; then swerving and diving below us, popping up port side, Fungi was putting on a show. A true pro.

Slipping into the boat’s wake, Fungi toyed with his audience’s attention, before swapping us for another nearby craft. Mesmerised, the passengers watched him greet the new company.

Every time he saluted above the surface, cheers rang out to applaud him. When they did, my conscience buzzed, and I questioned if we were chasing, maybe even harassing, this poor dolphin, because he is ageing.

Considering his legend — he first appeared, already an adult, in the harbour in 1983 — Fungi’s far from his heady, juvenile days. “The best guess says he’s somewhere in his mid-30s. But he’s as lively and playful as ever,” said the skipper. “More often than not, you find him like this. Jumping clean out of the water.”

“Put it like this,” said Jimmy Flannery, of the Dingle Boatmen’s Association. “Fungi can get away from our boats at any time. Where our top speed is nine miles an hour, his is 35. Trust me. When he wants to go, he’s gone. As for age, well, the experts say 25 years is it for those in captivity. Fungi’s wild, and I’ve been looking at him for 23.”

How do they know he’s the same ‘Fungi’?

That is the question that’s been asked a million times. Yet, it doesn’t raise the hackles. Dingle folk are too wily to be worried by a doubting tone.

They’re also seasoned watchers of this creature, and so, they’re most able to detail his markings, movements, and behaviour to prove his bona fide world-record-holder status.

“You see that little nick on his tail fin?” said Mr Flannery. “That little cut? He has it well over 20 years. That’s how we distinguish Fungi from other dolphins.
“All the skippers can pinpoint him from his dorsal fin, even when he’s in the middle of a visiting pod of 50 others.”

There may be no CSI Dingle, but the veterans know their stuff. “Ask any farmer to tell two sheep apart, and he will,” said Mr Flannery. “Same here. We’re looking at him everyday. ” What about the early sallies to meet him? “We thought we had to go out on a surf board, banging stones together — to attract his attention,” said John, a local diver, laughing at the innocence of it all. “We’d no idea how to get up-close-and-personal. ‘Dolphins may be friendly, but they’re still bloody wild animals at the end of the day’ — that’s what was running through my mind.”

The boat captains and their crews enthuse about their lot. Revelling in the good fortune of tripping along a stretch of ocean that just happens to be minded by a force of nature; one which has come to influence them. And anyone else, for that matter, who’s willing to succumb to Fungi’s charm.

They know Fungi won’t be around forever.

“We’ll deal with it when the time comes,” said Mr Flannery. “I’d like to think he’d give us a sign, though.” While other dolphins visit, and often hang around a while, they’re aware it’s taken territory. Even the females of the species pay Fungi brief conjugal visits (which might explain a few things).

Like his life, Fungi’s arrival has been a ‘fairy tale’. The lore of nearby Inch strand says Fungi had a female partner, who died in unknown circumstances, and washed ashore.

And ever since, Fungi’s remained, unwilling to leave, perhaps tied through fate to a coast-line that’s welcomed and comforted him over the years.

It’s the kind of narrative you can spin to your kids, so they see the world a little differently. I’m not sure if it was the boat trip and the stunning vista of a thriving fishing town, nestled into God’s country, or the spirit of those ferrying wide-eyed visitors, from near and far, out onto the harbour’s waters, but I returned ashore smitten.

“If he wasn’t around anymore, another might take his place,” Mr Flannery said. Perhaps, there’ll be a vacancy for the mantle of Dingle dolphin. Fungi’s legacy, though, is as solid as the statue of him on the pier.

Long after he’s gone, people will boat in the keyhole-shaped inlet, and holler his name, every time the water darkens a little beside their boat.

Having Fungi in your day — well, it’s probably like falling out of the right side of the bed, every morning.

So, did I get him? I can’t say I got to the bottom of his story, but I can say ‘I get him’.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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