My New Love

Trip Start Jul 28, 2004
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Trip End Sep 21, 2004


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Thursday, August 19, 2004

No one admits to having come to Dingle just to see Fungi. In the tourist office, I noticed several people approach the desk under other pretenses, then almost apologetically lower their voices and ask, "Do you know where I can see Fungi?" Having no such pretense (or shame), I walked to the desk and declared, "Hello! I'd like to see Fungi, the Famous Friendly Dolphin!"

Hours later I found myself on a boat with a dozen or so other Fungi-followers, out to find the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin that has lived in Dingle Harbor for the past 21 years. During that time, he has accompanied boats into and out of the harbor, made friends with the fishermen, and become an international phenomenon. He's not fed--He seems to stay in the harbor because he prefers human company. Several years ago, a pod from the outside world spent three weeks in the harbor trying to lure Fungi out, but he wasn't having it. He's not going anywhere.

He wasn't in the harbor that day, so my boat and two others motored out into the open ocean to see what we could see. Suddenly, all three boats spun on a dime and started racing back to the harbor. Apparently someone had spotted him, but then why weren't we sticking around to watch? The answer became apparent when Fungi, joyfully racing our triumvirate back into the harbor, popped up next to the boat beside us. All the way in, he bounded in and out of the churning water between the boats. Call it what you will--I say he was having a great time.

Once in the harbor, we slowed down and waited for him to surface again. I would have been happy with just the race, but Fungi was barely getting started. He swam from boat to boat, mugging for the cameras. A little sunfish boat joined us, and he spent much of the hour we had with him playing with this little winged surfboard. At first he just surfaced right next to it, holding his head above water and checking it out. Before long, he was leaping out of the water next to the tiny boat--from our perspective, it looked like he was trying to jump aboard. It must have looked that way to them, too. At first they were all smiles, but as his leaps came closer to the boat they began to duck and cover as he approached. At almost 700 pounds, Fungi wins against a sunfish, hands down.

So what can I say, I'm in love with Fungi. For his outgoing, playful nature that he allows us to witness, and for his ability to make even salty old fishermen yell, "Fungi!" as he leaps through the air. If every species had such an ambassador, we'd have a very different planet.

I stayed in Dingle four nights. It's a beautiful coastal town surrounded by mountains, and I stayed about a mile out of town in a converted farmhouse. It was probably the warmest hostel I've stayed in, with a large wood-paneled kitchen, thick oak furniture, and views of the rural countryside. By "warm," I really mean "cozy"--my little thermometer registered 64 degrees inside my dorm room in the mornings.

I also made a friend in Dingle, a dead-ringer for Alec Baldwin who cooked me dinner and asked for nothing in return but a few wildly exaggerated Fungi tales, which I was happy to provide. (I'm kidding! They're all true!) It was wonderful to have a friend for more than 24 hours, and to share some experiences with another person. We went on the local archeological tour, where we saw such important archeological sites as the house where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman stayed while filming Far and Away. We asked our tour guide how Fungi got his name, and by way of explanation he said, "It's Italian for mushroom." Oh, I see. I also forced Alec/Tim onto the Fungi cruise, where I learned that I had caught Fungi on a really good day. On Monday, he seemed tired of the paparazzi and stayed clear of the boats, though at one point he did race along beside us just below the surface of the water.

By Tuesday, I was on my own again, and I spent the day biking to Slea Head, near the tip of the Dingle Peninsula. It was the sunniest, warmest day yet, and by sheer coincidence I had my bathing suit in my bag. I stopped in Ventry along the way and laid in the sand, and even dove in once. It didn't feel like the Ireland I had come to know, the one where I never left the hostel without a wool hat and a raincoat. I also stopped at a few stone forts and monastic beehive huts, and stopped a few times just to take in the image of the Skelligs in the distance, the Beara Peninsula across the strait, the sheep grazing all the way to cliff's edge. The road I followed hugged the cliffs, so I never lost sight of the ocean, and I thought, There is absolutely nothing I would rather do right now than cycle down the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland with the blazing sun on my back. I came back utterly exhausted, and I think I'm still recovering--but it was worth every aching muscle!
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