Is Dingle's Fungi real... or a fin-tastic fairy story?
A sceptical Kim Bielenberg arrives in Dingle on his bike, determined to solve the great dolphin mystery. Has Fungi really been frolicking for 30 years?
I arrive in the harbour in Dingle on my bike as a confirmed Fungi sceptic. I am quite happy to accept that there is a dolphin out there in the bay, but is it really the same one who has been flipping about for 30 years?
Traffic is bumper to bumper as I pedal less than furiously into town and for once I enjoy the satisfaction of overtaking cars and the never-ending tourist buses.
As I lock up my bike near the Fungi statue and attempt to solve the dolphin mystery, a man in a Munster jersey chips in with his own contribution to the debate.
"I reckon there must have been nine or 10 Fungi the dolphins since this whole thing started," he says.
According to the official version of the story, Fungi is heading for 40 years of age and has been in Dingle since 1983. Locals insist a bottle-nosed dolphin can live up to the age of 50, but is he not a bit long in the tooth to be still leaping about?
Two years ago, rumours spread that he was dead - an event that would be nothing short of a financial calamity - but Kerry County Council was moved to issue a statement he was very much alive and flipping.
If someone in Dingle had discreetly replaced the celebrity creature, it would be quite understandable.
Has any town ever depended so much on a wild aquatic mammal? At least eight boats take visitors to see Fungi in continuous runs - some dolphin botherers camp here for the entire summer just to swim with Fungi. There are dolphin T-shirts, key chains, and he even gives his name to a pizza in a local restaurant.
I hop on the boat at lunchtime. In what is an effective marketing ploy, the boatmen do not charge passengers if Fungi is not seen. They only collect the money after the dolphin has appeared.
The lady in the ticket office reassuringly tells me he almost always shows up.
We chug out into the bay on the Lady Laura and there is an air of excited anticipation. At first there is no sign of any dolphin and I wonder if the trip is going to be worthwhile. But in the distance, on the far side of the bay close to the shore, a small cluster of boats indicates there is movement in the water. Suddenly, a child in front of me shouts: "There he is, there's Fungi, look there!" And there, for a brief moment, is the most famous dolphin in Europe, but how do I know it is Fungi, rather than some random dolphin, who just happens to be in the area?
"You can tell it's him because there is a little nick on his fin which he got from a propeller 20 years ago," one of the boatmen tells me. A glance at old pictures later on seems to confirm this.
At first the elderly dolphin moves slowly through the water, only appearing every 15 or 20 seconds. But then, amid gasps from the crowds on the boats, he grows in enthusiasm, moving higher out of the water, as cameras whirr in the background.
He dips, tilts, arches and twists, and then he gathers up speed and the boat rushes to follow. Suddenly he flips high out of the water, showing off his white front, and he repeats this show several times.
Some feel he is a peculiar animal in that he seems to prefer the company of humans to that of other dolphins. Is he really wild any more if he has hung around for so long, posing for all-comers?
Skipper Jimmy Flannery says: "Other dolphins come into the harbour. Sometimes he will interact with them and sometimes not."
There is even some speculation he originally came from some kind of dolphin show. Maybe he had escaped or was brought to the Kerry town by canny tourism executives. Jimmy dismisses these rumours out of hand.
"If it was as simple as bringing in a dolphin and putting it in the water, every town by the sea would do it. It just wouldn't work. It would be like putting a tiger in a field and hoping he'll stay there."
Jimmy first saw Fungi when he was an 11-year-old boy. His brother, a fisherman, took him out to see him. He started taking passengers out to see the dolphin in 1987 and it is now his full-time job. The whole family is in the Fungi business.
"I still think the fact that there is a dolphin here is remarkable and I feel Fungi is part of the family," he says.
It may seem implausible that a dolphin would hang around for so long, but I am beginning to become a believer. The alternative scenario, where he was replaced by an identical sociable creature who dutifully appears day after day, is even more far-fetched
There is a natural dread in the town about what will happen when the inevitable occurs and Fungi glides off through the foam to meet his maker.
"I really don't know what I'll do," says Jimmy. "I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it."
Back on dry land there is a buoyant mood in the town as it enjoys one of its best seasons. Emma Riordan, who runs the Rainbow Hostel and Campsite, says: "It has been a good year. Because of the good weather, we have a lot of Irish people who are choosing to have staycations."
I meet up with Kate, a teacher from Canada, who has just travelled for days across Connemara by bike, and has now got a bus to Kerry. She finds the narrow roads hazardous, but thinks the people are very friendly.
Having arrived with jet lag, she says she likes to party late at night and sleep late in the morning, and is usually woken by the women who run the B&B.
After confirming Fungi may indeed be real, it's time for me to hop back on the bike and head for Cork.
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