Dolphin and whale-watching continues to grow, and a third of the world’s species have been recorded in Irish waters, a dedicated sanctuary for such fish since 1991 and the first in Europe.
With the tourist season reaching a peak, many people visiting coastal areas will be keeping an eye out for these magnificent creatures. Boat trips in the hope of seeing them at close quarters are also available in West Cork, on the Shannon Estuary, and Dingle, Co Kerry.
Stories of dolphins and their interaction with people — best instanced in Ireland by Fungie, the internationally-famous Dingle dolphin — are legion. I chanced upon another while watching the excellent BBC’s Ocean Giants series the other night.
Dolphins are intelligent animals and the show focussed on what had all the appearance of co-operation between them and fishermen in Laguna, Brazil. There, fishermen rely on dolphins to help them catch mullet.
Scientists had known that dolphins work together to drive schools of mullet towards a line of fishermen in boats, or standing knee-deep in the murky Laguna water. The dolphins flap their tails hard in the water to pinpoint the location of the fish and fishermen then cast their nets towards the exact spots.
As you might expect, there’s also an element of self-interest for the dolphins which feed on the fish that escape the nets. Researchers agree the co-operation benefits both parties — the fishermen and the dolphins need to work together to survive.
“About 200 local fishermen are almost entirely reliant on the dolphins for catching their fish,” study researcher Fábio Daura-Jorge, of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil, told LiveScience. “The fishermen do not fish without the assistance of the dolphins and know the individual animals from their natural marks and can recognise them by eye.”
By now, millions of people have seen Fungie in Dingle harbour where he has been a tourist magnet since 1983. Upwards of a dozen ferries take visitors to see him perform acrobatics; there’s a monument to him on the pier, and trinkets and souvenir businesses have also been built around him. Some people have found swimming and diving with Fungie to be therapeutic. But they have to be aware they’re dealing with a wild animal and the unpredictability that entails: some dolphins can be aggressive. Fungie has become so valuable that locals in Dingle dread to think of what will happen whenever he passes on.
Fungie is unusual in that he appears to be a solitary dolphin confined to a small area. Dolphins are social animals which herd together and swim freely as is the case of those in the Shannon Estuary which can range along the Kerry and Clare coasts.
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