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The town of Dingle, a colorful haven on the wind-buffeted Dingle Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, is nearly synonymous with the beloved bottlenose dolphin Fungie. Since he made his appearance in Dingle Harbour almost 40 years ago, Fungie has been as much a part of the town as the quirky pubs, the cliffs, and the unpredictable weather. He never disappeared for more than a few hours at a time. But since October 15, Fungie has been missing.
After his last sighting by local fishers, a large team of fishing and tourist boats went to search for the dolphin. Concerned divers also joined the hunt, exploring the harbor’s underwater nooks and crannies. But nobody found Fungie—alive or dead—and the search was called off.
No one knew Fungie’s exact age. He was first spotted in the harbor in 1983, and locals think he was already fully grown at the time, which would make him around 45 years old. Other estimates place him closer to 40. Either way, he was showing signs of age, says Mark Simmonds, senior marine scientist at Humane Society International, and the timing of Fungie’s disappearance lines up with current estimates of bottlenose dolphins’ lifespans in the wild. But it’s impossible to say what has happened, says Simmonds, adding, “He’s so unique. We haven’t had a dolphin in a situation like this which we can compare him with.”
Fungie was always a perfect contradiction. Despite being a wild animal, he was deeply known: boat operators could rely on him to awe crowds of tourists by leaping alongside their vessels, and his human admirers could recognize him in a heartbeat. At the same time, he was a profound enigma: no one could ever know why he came to Dingle or why he stayed. “He has disappeared just as he appeared,” says Suzanne Massett, one of the Dingle locals who swam regularly with Fungie. “His mystery and magic go on.”
Little is known about the causes of dolphin mortality—or cetacean mortality more broadly. Rob Deaville, project manager at the United Kingdom Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, estimates that around one-fifth of the cetaceans he sees have died from unambiguously human causes, such as boat strikes. Another fifth have died from causes that had nothing to do with humans, like being killed by another animal. But for the rest, he says, there’s a question mark. Factors like noise pollution and chemical pollution could play a role in a way that’s difficult to see in an individual animal. “It’s like looking at the animal through a keyhole,” says Deaville. But elderly dolphins probably suffer similar fates to elderly humans, such as heart failure, cancer, and severe arthritis, which would prevent them from catching fish, says Mike Bossley, research fellow emeritus at Whale and Dolphin Conservation in Australia.
In a year that has already taken so much from so many people, the disappearance of Fungie is a heartfelt blow to Dingle. Although the town draws in tourists for its spectacular scenery and cultural festivals as well as for Fungie, the thousands of tourists who took Fungie-focused boat trips each year were an important part of the local economy. And for the tour boat operators, he was more than a livelihood—some would stay out on the water late in the day with their families, just enjoying Fungie’s company, says Nigel Collins, the Dingle harbormaster.
When I visited Dingle last year, the specter of Fungie’s age was already looming. Massett, who first swam with Fungie more than 20 years ago, told me that, for many people in the town, his loss—when it came—would hit hard, but that he would always be a crucial part of Dingle. Fungie, she said, will live on forever.