Tuesday 13 November 2018

'Fungie is my training partner' - The story of a long-distance swimmer and the Dingle Dolphin

‘Do you swim with Fungie?’ people ask Nuala Moore. Yes she does, but the answer is more complicated than that...

Fungie and Nuala's friend Paul in DIngle Harbour. Photo: Nuala Moore
Fungie and Nuala's friend Paul in DIngle Harbour. Photo: Nuala Moore
A swimmer's view of Fungie... Photo: Nuala Moore
Fungie in Dingle Harbour. Photo: Nuala Moore
Nuala Moore and Fungie in Dingle Harbour. Photo: Paul Britten
Fungie enjoying the fine weather in Dingle. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Nuala Moore

Dingle harbour is my swimming pool. Slaidín beach, at its entrance, is where I clear my head; it’s where my day begins and ends and mostly where dreams become reality.

Of course, this being Dingle, the first thing that people who see me getting into the water ask is, ‘Do you swim with Fungie?’ And yes, I often do. Fungie doesn’t really know me (well, maybe he does — I never asked!) but he is very comfortable around me.

Last Sunday, as I arrived to train, my friend Paul (below) was sitting shallow to the shore in his little red punt. That meant the dolphin would be close.

Fungie gravitates towards Paul, so I hung out near him and watched the world go by. Seeing him requires patience. Paul lets me know where he is, and I watch his head break the water, slowly climbing to show his huge body.

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Nuala Moore and Fungie in Dingle Harbour. Photo: Paul Britten

I love the way Fungie closes his eyes coming out and then opens them wide, taking a pregnant pause at the top. He stalls a second, eye scanning around before disappearing down again. He moves in circles, so huge yet so slow, and leaves only to come back around a while later. All this happens before the ferries arrive. It’s just us playing.

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It sounds beautiful, and it certainly can be, but my relationship with Fungie blows hot and cold. When people ask if I swim with him, it often feels awkward to say, ‘Well, he’s there, but I do my own thing’.

I’m a swimmer, you see. In winter I train in this water for ice and in summer I train for distance. In relay teams, I’ve swum around the island of Ireland. I’ve swum across the Bering Strait from Russia to the USA. In April of this year, I was the first woman in the world to swim south of Cape Horn in the most treacherous, freezing waters.

 The training required for expeditions like these is huge, and we go into our own worlds in the water. I run a small shop called Strawberry Beds here in Dingle, seven days a week, so time is precious. Training can take hours, and when Fungie is around, it’s never an easy decision to take out my ear plugs, get off the rollercoaster, and chill out.

But then dolphins can teach us so much.

Back in 2006, during the Round Ireland Swim, I was swimming across the Shannon, and this pod of dolphins came over to play around me. The swim was so tough, the power of the water pushing us west, and I was trying my hardest to make progress. The shadows of five or six dolphins kept leaping, smiling at me, and I was screaming inside my head — ‘Please stop, please leave me alone so I can dig deep!’ It’s hard to explain, but sometimes playing is not the mood of a swimmer.

For me to push through that pain, everything around me needs to be black and dark, that’s what I’m fighting. The swim must match the challenge. At times, I don’t engage with Fungie for that reason.

I’ve struggled outside of the water, too. My dog died recently. I haven’t been feeling great. My breathing has not come easy. If you can’t breathe then you can’t swim and sometimes I have to respect that I just need to rest. Sunday was one of those days.

As I swam from Slaidín, Paul pointed to Fungie. I lifted my head and took off my goggles.

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Fungie in Dingle Harbour. Photo: Nuala Moore

As a child, I remember the day I first saw him clearly. It was in 1982, and we were jumping off the rocks at Beenbane beach when a fin popped up. We sat panicked and staring, trying to figure out how to get to shore without being eaten. That was 36 years ago. Today, his face has aged, his expression has morphed to that of a wise old man. Human visibility underwater is not perfect, so for me I prefer the eye level moments where his grace and size shines through. With him in the water, I feel like a passenger of privilege in time.

I see Fungie as my training partner. Sometimes I need to know he is there and sometimes I need the space to do my own thing. The seasons make a difference, too. In summer, so many people are vying for his attention, my leg kick cannot trump the speed of the boats or his monofin. I can’t keep up. In the winter, it’s just us and it seems personal. It’s a different mood. At times he is the only company out here.

Many people ask me why he has stayed. Thinking about it, who wouldn’t? You only have to look at his face — the way he responds to some people, the way he plays. Fungie lives in a conveyor belt of fish as boats pass him by. So when people ask me why he stays, I always reply: ‘He’s living the dream.’

Maybe we are too. The beauty of swimming is that it is a release from life, mentally and emotionally. The sound of the ferry boats signals time for me to leave, so I turn and ease myself out of the water, my mind free from the clutter I brought in, ready to face another day as the fin disappears into the distance.

Finding Fungie

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Fungie enjoying the fine weather in Dingle. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Fungie was first spotted by Dingle fishermen in the 1980s. A whole tourism industry has since grown up around the Dingle Dolphin, and you can book boat trips with dingledolphin.com, among others, who only charge if there are sightings.

NB: Safety first

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A swimmer's view of Fungie... Photo: Nuala Moore

Nuala is an experienced swimmer who grew up in the area. Dingle Harbour is not recommended for recreational swimming.

“There are a large volume of boats in this working channel,” she explains. “I use a tow float for visibility and, when I see Fungie’s shadow, I raise my awareness that the boats may be coming, and tuck in towards the rocks to stay clear of the traffic. The beauty of this harbour is that we all work together to keep each other safe. I come from a fishing family, so I grew up being warned that a fishing vessel cannot see a swimmer in the water underneath them. The channel is 100m wide at most and we all work together. There are unwritten rules to swimming here and that is the first priority.”

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