As the Irish government moves the country back into a strict, national lockdown for six weeks, an unlikely story continues to break through the endless Covid-19 headlines.
Fungie, a bottlenose dolphin, is missing from the scenic County Kerry coast in Ireland’s southwest, where he has lived at the entrance to Dingle’s harbor since 1983.
Over the past 37 years, the wild marine mammal has become an Irish celebrity thanks to his friendly nature and love of people, with visitors coming from far and wide to take a boat into the small port town’s harbor for a closer look.
But the Guinness World Records title-holder for the “longest recorded solitary dolphin” has not been seen since last Thursday when he swam alongside a fisherman’s boat, locals who helped coordinate the search for him told CNN.
Now they are are fearing the worst.
“It is totally out of character for him. The most he has ever disappeared for was four or five hours,” Jimmy Flannery, chairperson of Dingle Dolphin Boat Tours, told CNN.
Flannery, who has been running Fungie boat tours for 33 years, had been coordinating daily search teams since the alarm was raised.
“He is as close to a missing person as could be,” Flannery said. “We had 12 boats searching by Saturday, and on Sunday, divers from the Mallow Search and Rescue team carried out an extensive search of the coves and inlets where he would normally be seen. They also carried out a sonar scan of the seabed, but there was no trace.”
While the official search has now been stood down, locals will continue to monitor for any sign of the beloved dolphin “for as long as it takes.”
“Fungie is a part of all of our lives,” Flannery said. “We are hoping that he has swam off on an adventure. We live in hope that he might come back again.”
Flannery believes that Covid-19 restrictions could have had an effect on the playful people-pleaser as during Ireland’s first Covid-19 lockdown in March, April and May, non-essential boats were asked to stay off the water.
“For the first time in 37 years, Fungie didn’t have company when the boats were no longer going out,” Flannery said. “He might have sensed something was wrong. Maybe he thought the world is not the same place as it has been and he just moved on.”
However, Fungie is an estimated 40 years old, and Simon Berrow, chief science officer and acting CEO of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, said male bottlenose dolphins have a life expectancy of between 30 to 40 years. He added that Fungie’s disappearance was to be expected.
“It was always going to be this way – Fungie not showing up someday, rather than being found washed up dead in Dingle,” Berrow told CNN.
“For the large abundance of BND [bottlenose dolphins] off the west coast of Ireland we get relatively few strandings. I’m not sure why, but maybe they swim offshore, or sink when dead or dying. It’s hard to know, but it’s better this way.
“One thing is for sure, people will be looking for Fungie for years to come and there might be lots of ‘false’ sightings, like Elvis, but his legacy will live on for a long time,” Berrow added.
A whole industry will now suffer without their star attraction. Pre-coronavirus in high season, up to 12 boats operated daily trips, employing more than 50 people directly, Flannery said. And dozens more will be affected indirectly in local hotels, guest houses, pubs, restaurants and shops, he added.
“Economically it is not good for us, but the concern right now is his whereabouts. It’s like losing a family member, this is our friend, our mascot,” Flannery said.
Down the road in Dick Mack’s pub, owner and Dingle-native Finn MacDonnell said the news of Fungie’s disappearance is “pretty grim”.
“People are in poor form because of the announcement of the new level five lockdown [Ireland’s highest restriction announced on Monday] and now Fungie is missing,” MacDonnell told CNN.
“We have all grown up with him. We knew the day would come when he would not longer be here, but it’s all probably a bit gloomier than we thought it would be because of the current situation.”