Amidst all the jokes about Healy Raes in dolphin suits and how he was a “fun guy to be around,” there’s genuine sadness as Ireland comes to terms with the fact that Fungie, the beloved Dingle Dolphin, may never be seen again.
Against increasingly mounting odds, one man is still holding out hope.
Jimmy Flannery has been running Dingle Dolphin Tours for the past 32 years; in that time, by his reckoning, over 1 million people have gone dolphin watching off the Kerry coast.
“It’s been over a week since there’s been a sighting but I’m still hoping he’s gone off on an adventure somewhere,” Jimmy says. “Paul Hand called me last Thursday morning to say he’d had a sighting. I’m still hoping he’ll turn up. It’s like having a family member missing; you hold out hope.”
Although there’s been plenty of comment about the value of Fungie, the solitary bottlenose Dolphin resident in Dingle Bay’s waters for the past 37 years, as a lucrative addition to the local tourism industry, Jimmy says Fungie’s disappearance runs deeper than that.
Whatever the fate of Ireland’s most famous marine mammal, Jimmy also runs Dingle Sea Safari tours, who cast their net wider in terms of offering marine sightings to tour groups. He says that Fungie’s lasting legacy is increasing people’s respect for the marine environment and marine mammals.
“When I grew up, we had Flipper on TV,” he says. “We thought you had to go to Florida to see dolphins and whales, but there’s a whole generation of Irish people that have grown up knowing about our marine mammals and Fungie laid the groundwork for that. That’s his legacy.”
UCC Environmental Scientist Dr Alicia Mateos-Cárdenas agrees. But marine mammals, like all marine life, are facing deadly man-made environmental threats.
“We are all wondering what happened to Fungie, but now, everyone is talking about dolphins and whales,” Dr Mateos-Cárdenas says. “We can use this opportunity to talk about how the oceans are polluted and the impacts on marine life.”
Dr Mateos-Cárdenas researched micro-plastic pollution for her PhD, focusing on a small invertebrate shrimp-like species that inhabits both freshwater and seawater, which is able to break micro-plastics down into even smaller nano-plastics.
Her current post-doctoral research, funded by the Marine Institute, is a three-year study exploring the prevalence of micro-plastics in deep sea coral reefs off the west coast of Ireland. An ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), transported by the research vessel Celtic Explorer, has collected samples from the Porcupine Bank Canyon, a deep sea trench on the Irish Shelf 370km from Mizen Head, and is currently collecting at the Moira Mounds in the North East Atlantic.
The sampling is 1km underwater, but even at this depth, plastic pollution is apparent. It’s yet another chilling example of the extent of plastic pollution in the global marine environment.
“We’ve found larger plastics through video data so I’m sampling for microplastics,” Dr Mateos-Cárdenas says. “The places we’re studying are 1000m deep and we are finding plastic waste accumulating there. The team I’m working with have found plastic bags, fishing nets and fragments of things like plastic trays in the deep sea.”
Large pieces of plastic waste pose injury risks through entanglement or ingestion for many ocean creatures. For marine mammals, there’s a drowning risk too: although the time they remain submerged varies from over an hour for large whales like Sperm whales to minutes for dolphins and porpoises, marine mammals, unlike fish, must reach the surface regularly to breathe air into their lungs. If they become entangled and can’t reach the surface, they will drown.
“It can also affect their mobility and ability to swim, and if they can’t keep up with their family group they may be left behind,” Dr Mateos-Cárdenas says.
Postmortems on marine mammals now reveal plastics and microplastic fragments in their digestive systems. “It might not be the cause of death, but it’s showing us how polluted their environment is,” Dr Mateos-Cárdenas says. “It warns us that we need to understand the impacts of this more.”
“Obviously, it’s shocking for people to see a turtle with a straw up its nose or a whale entangled in a fishing net. But microplastics are posing different problems. The plastic itself as an ingested particle may not do things like block the digestive tract. But there are chemicals in plastic, additives that leach out whose impacts we don’t know.”
Additives in plastics include phthalates, known endocrine disruptors which impact animal fertility in lab settings.
Even less well-understood is the realm of nano-plastics, which has worrying toxic potential: nano-plastics, particles less than 1 micron (m) in size, are small enough to cross cell walls and accumulate in tissues. Dr Mateos-Cárdenas’ doctoral research showed that “plastics are not only degraded by sunlight or wave action, but also by animals”.
Aside from the gargantuan threat of ocean plastics, there are other man-made threats to marine mammals: whale beaching incidents in Ireland and Scotland have increased within the past three years, with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s (IWDG) science officer questioning whether military sonar could be the cause.
Seven Northern Bottlenose Whales beached themselves and died on Rossnowlagh beach in Donegal on August 19 this year. On the 17th, two pods of the same species beached in the Faroe Islands and there were sightings of the rarely seen creatures in several locations in Scotland, prompting the IWDG to speculate that an unknown phenomenon was negatively impacting them.
From sound pollution to plastic pollution, policy change is based on knowledge, Dr Mateos-Cárdenas points out.
The recent microbead ban and Ireland’s successful plastic bag levy are examples where government action has been taken as a result of research, she says: “I don’t want to leave this research in the university for my scientific peers. I’d like to be able to show someone who isn’t aware of the issue how our behaviour is affecting the environment. What we do on land doesn’t stop there; it goes somewhere.