Fungie wins title of longest living friendly dolphin

West Kerry

Fungie. Photo by Jeannine Masset and Rudi Schamart of Fungie Forever

Declan Malone & Joan MaguireKerryman

Fungie's newly conferred status as the world's longest living human-friendly dolphin will be grist to the mill for those who reckon Dingle has a stock of replacement dolphins, but for the boatmen who bring thousands of visitors on Fungie trips it will only be good for business.

The Marine Connection charity's 'Lone Rangers' report into the 114 whales and dolphins around the world that have regularly interacted with humans since the 1950s, lists Fungie as maintaining the longest contact with people. Other friendly dolphins have died, disappeared or rejoined the company of their own kind, but for reasons known only to himself, Fungie has remained attached to Dingle Harbour where an industry has built up around him.

Although the Fungie story has developed its own mythology, it's generally accepted that he was first spotted by Dingle lighthouse keeper Paddy Ferriter (better known as Paddy The Lighthouse) in 1983 or '84. As word got out, local scuba diver John O'Connor and Ronnie Fitzgibbon from Tralee, as well as Sheila Stokes, developed a relationship with Fungie and within a couple of years Laurence Benison (Snr) started offering sightseeing trips. It took some time for the dolphin trips to catch on, but they have now become an industry in Dingle with about 11 boats, employing about 30 people, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to see Fungie every summer.

In his 35 years in Dingle, Fungie has been the subject of several documentaries and countless media reports, he has attracted a worldwide following and devotees of all shades.

Among Fungie's earlier followers was Dr Horace Dobbs who had a theory that contact with the dolphin could help people suffering from clinical depression. Tom Hand, who has been a 'Fungie boatman' since the early years, reckons this was no pie in the sky notion. He recalls one wheelchair-bound girl who would come to Dingle with a group of Dobbs' patients and after a couple of weeks in contact with Fungie would be "walking around on her own and as happy as any other child".

Athough Fungie is now more grey and wrinkled, Tom says that "he's fine and fit and healthy and in great form". He continues to be enjoy human contact and recently appeared to be showing off his catch when he surfaced beside dolphin tour boats with a salmon in his mouth.

For all that, some people are convinced that Fungie has long since died of old age and the cute 'hoors' in Dingle got a stand-in to keep the business going. "There's a lot of sceptics; some people just refuse to believe that it can be the same dolphin," said Tom adding: "There are still people who haven't heard of Fungie and want to go out to see him, thanks be to God.