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"Fungie" The Wild Dolphin - A True Story

Twelve years ago, while visiting Ireland and doing a little family research on my ancestry--the O’Flanerty clan--Carole Ann and I looked into a little bookstore. To my delight we discovered a book entitled The Dingle Dolphin, by Ronnie Fitzgibbon. It’s the true story of "Fungie" a wild dolphin who had adopted Dingle Harbor as his home. And from early on, about 1983, displayed an enthusiasm for following and playing with humans.

As a dolphin enthusiast and marine sculptor, I was excited to see Fungie. We immediately cancelled all plans for the day and drove the two hours to the little town of Dingle, on the Southwest corner of County Kerry. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the harbor. A small boat was tied up to the landing, with two men in wet suits boarding a rubber raft tied to its stern. We knew we were in the right place when the skipper shouted to us, "Last trip to see the dolphin!"

We immediately jumped aboard and headed in the direction of the bay‘s inlet and the open ocean. I was very excited about seeing the dolphin, but also very frustrated because I didn’t have any diving gear. But lucky for me and just by chance, the skipper had a wet suit, mask, and fins. No sooner was I suited up when a dolphin came racing towards us. "That’s him, that’s Fungie," said the skipper. With those words barely out of his mouth, Fungie leaped clear out of the water and completely over the rubber raft and the two guys in wet suits. Then he began leaping and playing all around us. The invitation was there--I was stunned. It hadn’t been more than two hours since we first learned of Fungie, and now, here I was diving overboard and into the water to be with him.

First I saw his dorsal fin cutting a white wake towards me, then at the last second he disappeared. I looked down to see his huge 10-foot body zoom past me and into the murky depths. Next I felt something nudge me from the rear. I turned and saw his big, smiling face looking at me. I reached out to make contact, but he lured me down to the bottom and then back to the surface, where he popped up and made wild circles around me. Then he began sneaking up behind me with more nudging. It was a game of "surprise." I never knew from whence he would come and startle me. But before long we made contact. He let me touch him. He’d roll over under water and let me rub his belly. We frolicked together for over 40 minutes, just Fungie and me. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’d made contact with another species!

I read in "Fungie" by Sean Mannion that "many people become enraptured by this dolphin." They think about nothing but dolphins for weeks afterwards. Many openly express a wish to come back as a dolphin in the next life. The dolphin is associated with happiness, its world is thought of as a distant place, an Atlantis that lies beyond the sea’s farthest horizon. It’s not hard to see why humans aspire to that kind of fantasy land. Perhaps the feeling of euphoria comes from the sense of getting a glimpse of it: For a few magic, fleeting moments in Dingle an invisible barrier between two worlds comes down. Then all too soon, Fungie goes back, leaving not a little happiness painted on the faces of those he has left behind."

By the time Fungie made Dingle Bay his home, I had been studying and sculpting dolphins for about five years. I had swum near wild dolphins in Hawaii but had never had a close encounter until this meeting with Fungie. He made a deep and joyous impression on me that will remain all of my life.

When returning to Ireland three years ago, we visited Fungie and Dingle and found that he had become an international celebrity, with scores of visitors boating out daily to see him. He was bringing great prosperity to this little town. He had become the town’s mascot, and the people of Dingle love him dearly.

It was at this time that I felt very strongly that Fungie deserved a lasting tribute recognizing him as a goodwill ambassador to the world. Here was a mammal that has had an extraordinary impact on human beings. He brought an economic boom to a little fishing village in Ireland. Not only has Fungie inspired a wonderful little aquarium in Dingle, but moved the powers-that be to declare Ireland a place where dolphins and whales could not be hunted.

I took with me a miniature bronze of the dolphin bench I had created for the La Arcada Court in Santa Barbara. I thought that such a bench in Dingle would be a fun and proper tribute to Fungie. A sculpture that would acknowledge him forever, and one that children could play on while waiting for their boat ride to see him.

We met with the town’s officials: Chamber President John Moviarty, Harbor Master Brian Farrell, and Senator Tom Fitzgerald, all of whom were very enthusiastic and heartily endorsed the concept. However, when it came to its funding we hit a snag. I was willing to give the use of my molds, but the bronze casting would require several thousand dollars, which couldn’t be raised in Dingle.

So when we returned to the States we began a campaign to raise the money here. We approached the City of Santa Barbara, but they weren’t accepting any more sister-city applications. We tried some Irish actor celebrities and other Irish-American groups--all unwilling or didn’t have the funding.

Determined to create this monument to Fungie, I asked Sandy Decker, of Decker Studios Bronze casting Foundry in Los Angeles, if he’d go half with me in its creation. Sandy is not only a great sculptor, but a lover of wild animals on land or sea. He didn’t hesitate and thought it was a great idea. He agreed, provided that all four of us go to Ireland for the unveiling, and since he’d just married, he’d have a great excuse for another honeymoon with his wife, Karen.

Carole Ann offered to take on the year-long negotiations with our Dingle contact, Jimmy Brambury, their new chamber president. From dozens of phone calls, faxes, and e-mails, the project was coming to fruition. They would provide airfare for the four of us, shipment of the bronze dolphin, food and housing for one week, and provide for a car.

They wanted the monument to be unveiled and dedicated on January 2, 2000 as Dingle’s millennium project. The dream became a reality. There was a rousing unveiling ceremony and celebration of the life-size bronze dolphin, designed so that children can play and sit on it. But best of all was the headline in The Examiner of the Irish News, which read, "Fungie is Now Dingle’s Forever Friend."

Along with the sculpture of fungie there is also a bronze plaque written by Carole Ann, which reads, "At the dawning of the new millennium we celebrate Fungie, the dolphin who since 1983 has made Dingle Bay him home; his graceful and generous spirit reminds us that all earth’s creatures are connected in this Great Web of Creation; let us be caretakers. --The Reverend Carole Ann Cole."

Bud Bottoms is the well-known marine mammal sculptor whose dolphins fountain graces the foot of State Street, Santa Barbara, CA.


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