Interactions with other dolphins
For many years, the Dingle dolphin was described as a solitary dolphin, and that is a fair description in general. Ronnie Fitzgibbon’s book The Dingle Dolphin talks about ‘Fungie’ having a ‘mate’ in 1987, but we were originally sceptical about this as the story seemed to be based on an anthropomorphic concept of dolphin society (bottlenose dolphins are promiscuous and do not form sexual pair-bonds). Through 1989 and 1990 we were out swimming with the dolphin several hundred times (from March to October 1990, at least once every day and often twice) and never saw or heard of any other dolphins in the area. However, in some very clear visibility in the autumn of 1991 we were able for the first time to see and to get clear photos of tooth-rake marks on the dolphin’s back. (Normally he would be moving around too quickly for a swimmer to focus on such details.)
Tooth-rake marks are sets of parallel scratches in the skin which arise when dolphins play and/or fight with each other and are common especially in wild adult male dolphins. They are shallow enough to fade with time as new layers of skin grow. This was clear evidence that the solitary Dingle dolphin was meeting and interacting with other dolphins. It was not a one-off, either, as the disappearance of old marks and the appearance of new ones from time to time after that testified. But where and how he managed to meet other dolphins without being observed was and is a mystery. By this time the dolphin was under constant observation from dawn to dusk and yet from 1989 to 1995 no-one to our knowledge reported seeing another bottlenose dolphin near him or near the mouth of the harbour.
In 1991 we did see the Dingle dolphin interacting with a striped dolphin Stenella ceruleoalba which later died nearby, but this was only on one day, the striped dolphin was half his size (with a different spacing of tooth-rakes) and Fungie was naturally the dominant partner in any interaction. In fact it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that friendly ‘Fungie’ was partly responsible for the visiting dolphin’s death. It was hard to tell whether the two dolphins were playing or fighting.
The situation was reversed when a couple of orca whales came by later the same year – the dolphin made himself very scarce. But no other bottlenose dolphins had showed themselves at this stage. However we did become aware of the presence in Dingle Bay of a group of his own kind, as they were seen at Inch in the summer of 1991 and occasionally over the next few years. Finally in 1995 we got in touch with this group, which we now believe to be semi-resident in the bay, and visited with them at various locations within Dingle Bay many times over the following two years and occasionally since. Most of our encounters were several miles from Dingle.
In November 1995 members of this band of dolphins were seen at the mouth of Dingle harbour and they made repeat visits several times to our knowledge over a period of a couple of weeks. They were so easy to spot that it became even harder to imagine that we could have overlooked them before. On the first occasion, as some of the dolphins approached the narrows, strung out in a line, ‘Fungie’ appeared to race along the line with a quick scuffle at the encounter with each visitor, perhaps as if to try and keep them out. If this was his intention he was hopelessly outnumbered and he soon gave up. Some of us swam off the rocks by the lighthouse on this occasion and saw some of the dolphins underwater. By this time we were familiar with at least five of the Dingle bay pod and could confirm their presence amongst the visitors. However there was such activity and excitement that it was impossible to tell what ‘Fungie’ was doing or even if he was actually swimming with the visitors. On a later date though, he definitely seemed to be playing with them.
During 1996 we continued to make contact with the Dingle Bay pod when weather conditions permitted but it was not until July that they reappeared in Dingle harbour. This time the result was even more spectacular as one animal – immediately assumed to be female, without any evidence – elected to stay around, and the two dolphins were seen associating with each other several times during the summer. Once again stories of finny romance blossomed in the Dingle pubs but there was no way of telling even what sex the visitor was as s/he did not approach swimmers underwater as ‘Fungie’ does. ‘Fungie’s mate’ was not there all the time, anyway.
Over the next four years there is a gap in the evidence for further interactions. No-one since this time has enjoyed the sort of underwater interactions with the dolphin which had enabled us to see the tooth-rake marks in the previous few years, and no visiting dolphins were reported again until February 2000. At this time, three bottlenose dolphins turned up at Slaidín and were captured on video by Nick. Aiden went out in his dinghy but they were not interested, however over the next few days the same dolphins stayed around Ventry harbour where all the usual suspects swam with them. However it cannot be stated with certainty that Fungie interacted with the visitors while they were in Dingle.
In May of the same year, a larger group of 10 to 15 dolphins came at least as close as Bínn Bán, which is within the Dingle dolphin’s range, but at least while they were under observation he did not approach them.
On the 10th June 2001 another first was achieved when two interactive and ‘solitary’ dolphins met up in Dingle harbour. The visitor was Dony, then resident around the Blasket Islands. Dony had been playing with swimmers at the Blasket Island that day and possibly followed the Blasket Island ferry An t’Oiléanach the 10 miles round to Dingle in the evening. In fact Dony came over again on at least four other evenings, 12th June and 2nd, 3rd and 5th July – and possibly at other times undetected. We were able to watch the dolphins playing actively together, including a nice piece of ‘synchronised swimming’ and jumping. A visiting swimmer was, not surprisingly, a bit taken aback to find not one but two friendly dolphins on his hands, especially when the one (Dony, of course) started getting a bit too fresh with his boogie board. Dony, always the more forward of the two dolphins, was keen to interact with swimmers in the water, whereas Fungie as usual was tending to hang back. This was even the case when two regular Fungie swimmers, Nick and Suzanne, were in the water: although both dolphins came in together and swirled around the swimmers, Dony was the one all over them, and it seemed that he was blocking them when they tried to make moves towards interacting with Fungie, who remained more in the background.
April 2002 saw more excitement in Dingle harbour as on the weekend of the 13th/14th, two visiting dolphins turned up while most of us were away visiting the Clare dolphin, Dusty. Luckily Suzanne was on hand and on the Sunday witnessed the three dolphins together(see her Fungie diary entry). However they were not there constantly and none of us saw them on the Monday, although at least one fisherman did see one of the visitors with Fungie. On the evening of Tuesday 17th, Suzanne saw the three together again, cruising gently, although Fungie left the others to do escort duty for a trawler leaving harbour. Later that evening Laura saw all three of them actually jumping together!
On the 17th and 18th December 2003, Fungie once again had visitors. Nick and Suzanne were on the spot again and estimated that about 10 dolphins came into the harbour as far as the first channel marker buoy on the 17th. It was impossible to say what, if anything, Fungie was doing about this possible invasion of his territory; but on the 18th, when the visitors didn't come in so close, they could see clearly that Fungie was 'hiding' as close to the shore as possible and definitely avoiding any interaction with the other dolphins.