Monday 24 September 2018

Fungie Forever: The amazing story of Jeannine, Rudi and the Dingle dolphin

A Dingle Dolphin's Tale

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

"There is a bond," says Jeannine Masset.

That's an understatement. The day before I spoke with Jeannine, born in the Netherlands but living in Dingle, Co. Kerry, she and husband Rudi Schamhart had taken their little rubber dinghy out for an almost daily ritual - the search for Fungie.

"The  boats were all looking for him, but when we came out he came straight over to to us," she says. "He just knows certain people. Even if you are in a different boat. He knows the engine sounds, who is on board, even who is walking on the beaches."

For 26 years now, Jeannine and Rudi have been coming to boat in the bay, looking for a bottlenose dolphin that means the world to them.

Jeannine and Fungie. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Jeannine and Fungie. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie at sunset. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Rudi with Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12.
Rudi and Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.

And almost always, he shows up. Hundreds of hours of video, "about 10,000 photos" and a trail of salt-spoiled cameras and fading phone batteries attest to that.

The couple has no commercial or business interest in Fungie. They use amateur equipment (a GoPro and a tough little waterproof Olympus), but years of patient interactions have yielded footage that would do the BBC's Planet Earth proud.

In their videos and photos (watch our highlights, above), Fungie can be seen leaping metres from the water, interacting in whispery-close proximity, playing with hunted salmon ("his absolute favourite fish," as Jeannine says) and suspended in almost static bliss, hanging in emerald green waters before her GoPro.

"We simply want to share our wonderful adventures, because he brightens up so many people's days and shows the incredible beauty of Dingle Bay," she says.

Fungie at sunset. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie at sunset. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Rudi and Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Rudi with Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Jeannine and Fungie. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.

Jeannine and Rudi's story goes back decades. She first visited Dingle from the Netherlands with her parents in 1962. She loved it, and later in life recalls seeing a documentary on a dolphin thrilling locals around the same bay.

"It was love at first sight," she says of her first swim with Fungie.

She returned over and again, before relocating to Kerry in 1991. She and husband Rudi have been boating with him ever since.

Jeanine describes Fungie as "a very lovely and complex character... there is so much more to him than the tourist attraction. There is no aggression in him. He is very gentle, friendly. He can be naughty, but in recent years he's gotten gentler. He rarely allows himself to be touched. He's not a petting kind of dolphin."

Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Rudi and Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Rudi with Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12.
Fungie at sunset. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Jeannine and Fungie. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.

The couple's videos and photos have attracted thousands of viewers and fans on their 'Fungie Forever' Facebook and YouTube pages. Beneath the flowery fonts and breathtaking footage, however, lies a firm anti-captivity message.

"I grew up with Flipper on TV and like so many other kids, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer," Jeannine says. "Then I found out how they get into aquariums and shows. The captivity industry opened my eyes. There really is more to them...'

Dolphins should not be kept in captivity, she believes. They should remain free, with any human interaction on their terms, in their natural habitat.

"They need to chase their own live food, swim hundreds of miles in the open fresh ocean water, live in social groups and simply enjoy their free lives," she adds.

Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.
Fungie in Dingle Bay. Photo: Jeannine Masset & Rudi Schamhart. See facebook.com/12FungieForever12 for more.

Fungie's interactions with local boats are the stuff of legend, but when he has had enough of the crowds, he "disappears into the deep", Jeannine says. "As the summer advances, he does that more and more. Even he has to have a life!"

Fungie has been resident in Dingle Bay since 1983, and Jeannine believes he is aged somewhere between 38 and 40. Male bottlenose dolphins can live into their 50s, she says, and like the locals who make their living off dolphin tours and merchandise, she wonders what will happen when, inevitably, one day he does not show up to play.

"I've had very bad health in the last 15 years. I know Fungie cannot heal anything, but he gives me an energy boost that helps me cope so much better. Out there with him, you forget your energy and discomfort."

"But for me it's important that he is happy and healthy. That's it."

Read more:

Is Dingle's Fungi real... or a fin-tastic fairy story?

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