Charting interactions between dolphins and people
Irish Dolphins - Interactions between dolphins and people.  Including Fungie the Dingle Dolphin
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History part 3 (1995 onwards)

1995-2000: the dolphin phenomenon reaches maturity

With the expansion of boat-based dolphin-watching tourism through the 1990’s, the opportunities for establishing a personal relationship with the dolphin were somewhat eroded. The sheer volume and intensity of boat traffic throughout the day made it dangerous and unattractive to enter the water protected only by a wetsuit, but equally significant was the dolphin’s own predilection for marine transport. Even his most favourite playmates of the time have always tended to be ignored when the attraction of a moving boat has been on offer, especially if it has a large noisy engine as well. The sad fact is that in many ways the Dingle dolphin prefers boats to people! As a result of the increasing dominance of the dolphin boats and rising numbers of recreational boats during the 1990's, those swimmers who had already established a relationship with the dolphin were forced to the early mornings and late evenings, and eventually away from the summer season altogether by the middle of the decade. For visitors seeking to establish contact with the dolphin, a one or two-week holiday no longer afforded enough time and opportunities to make the crucial break-through with an increasingly over-stimulated dolphin, and the numbers of people travelling here to swim with him fell steadily from 1993 onwards. The numbers of ‘regulars’ – mostly people who had moved to Dingle partly or mainly to spend time with the dolphin - also dwindled, as people moved on to other things or fell out of favour with the dolphin, until by 1995-6 the dolphin was really only interacting with a small handful of dedicated swimmers on any regular basis.

At this time the boogie board, previously a toy of occasional interest like any other, started to come into its own as out-of-season swimming became more of a feature of Dingle dolphin life. In winter, the sea is not only cold but tends to be murky so there is no great attraction in having your head underwater. You see as much or more of the dolphin from the surface, and the board keeps at least part of you above the waves whilst still allowing a genuinely aquatic form of movement. Finning along with the board or spinning round on it with the dolphin following became the new form of the paddle game, and is now a fairly standard pattern of interaction which many temporary residents and visitors have adopted, though it is a hard core of only 2 or 3 long-time swimmers who have kept the interactions going through the last few winters (see Pattern of Behaviour).

It is impossible to know how the interactive situation might have evolved in Dingle had there not been such a marked dominance of most of the year by boat-based activities. Over the last few years, regular observers have reported a distinct seasonal change in the dolphin’s behaviour around October time, when he suddenly becomes interested in interacting again. At a certain point in the middle of January, he appears to switch off equally dramatically, and people stop going out swimming from then on. As there is no concerted effort to interact with the dolphin at other times of the year, however, it is hard to know whether this represents a genuine shift in his attitude or a response to other conditions. It may for example be the case that the dolphin actually needs to conserve his energy at this time of the year when the water is so much colder and there are few fish running.

Into the new millenium
Looking back over the last 15 years of personal interactions with the Dingle dolphin, there is a remarkable continuity despite the changing circumstances which have surrounded him. In some ways the phenomenon may have peaked in the mid-1990’s, in that fewer new people are coming to Dingle to swim with the dolphin each year. Leaving aside the Flannerys' dolphin swim trips and the more superficial contacts these facilitate, the swimming season is very much more restricted than it was ten years ago, and the dolphin scene has for some time been very much dominated, for better or for worse, by the commercial boat trips offered by the Dingle Boatmen’s Association. For the summer visitors on their holidays, the chance of having any personal contact with the dolphin is very small indeed. However, it has always been a small number at any time who have been going out swimming regularly enough to build up what might be called a relationship, and if you get the right conditions at the right time of year, the dolphin is still capable of surprising and delighting anybody. For those in the thick of the action the experience is as magical as it ever was, as our Fungie diary archive shows.

As our Personal Reports section (under construction) also shows, the experience of interacting with a wild dolphin on his own terms is above anything a personal and subjective one, and what counts may not even be the externally-observed patterns of movements and behaviour, which are themselves so hard to quantify, but the infinitely less tangible - but no less precious - internal processes, of expectancy, contact, correspondance and emotional response, which we go through during the interaction. Hundreds of people have now experienced that mysterious moment of silent communication across the species barrier which is so hard to define, let alone predict or engineer, and which makes all the waiting and struggling into wetsuits and getting cold and wet worthwhile. Every year a few more are added to the community of self-confessed dolphin nutters - who have enjoyed a taste of something so special and unique that we really can only expect it to happen once in a lifetime, and which will never be glimpsed by the hundreds of thousands more who see only the dolphin’s disappearing back from the safe heights of the crowded deck of a tourist boat chasing after his last blow. It’s still possible to join that fortunate band, 17 years on – it just takes a bit more commitment and luck these days, that’s all!
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Date Posted: 17/12/2001
Date Edited: 02/02/2004

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