For 37 years Fungie the dolphin has kept fishermen, tourists and locals company as he frolicks in the waves off the coast of west Ireland.
The solitary bottleneck dolphin appeared in Dingle Bay, off the coast of County Kerry in 1983 and since then has become one of the areas most beloved residents.
Fungie, a male dolphin, loves to seek out human company and enjoys playing with swimmers, surfers, divers and kayakers when they take to the sea.
Since he first appeared 37 years ago, Fungie has been draw for tourists from across Ireland and abroad with dolphin spotting boat trips regularly taking people out to meet the playful dolphin.
But then, several weeks ago, when Fungie, who was an adult when he arrived in Dingle Bay, wasn’t seen for a few days and the locals began to worry.
Their concerns have now turned to heartbreak as no sign of the friendly dolphin has been seen since.
In the days following Fungie’s initial disappearance a huge search was launched using sonar scanning and scuba divers.
But as hope began to fade that the dolphin would return, this has now been stood down.
Jimmy Flannery, the founder and owner of Dingle Sea Seafari tours, says searchers are “drained – mentally and physically”.
He told the Irish Mirror : “People have to realise and respect this is a friend that’s gone missing. It’s not an object.”
Jimmy’s bond with the dolphin is so strong that when his wife, who was born in Donegal, moved to Dingle the first thing he did was take her to meet Fungie.
He said: “He’s pulled me through thick and thin. I’ve spent times with him when I needed just some company, and not human company. I’ve spent it with him.
“I was only 12 years old when Fungie arrived, and I’m taking people out since I was 16 years old.
“He’s an institution. He was the mascot, he was the sentinel at the entrance to the harbour that would meet and greet every boat no matter what.”
Nuala Moore, an extreme swimmer who would often meet Fungie on her regular sea swims, added: “We’re all feeling really sad. We’ve been sharing this body of water for 30 years. I grew up swimming with him.”
But what’s happened to the beloved dolphin?
Fungie was an adult dolphin when he first appeared in the bay and is though to be in his early to mid-40s.
In the wild, dolphins has a life expectancy of around 50 and Dr Kevin Flannery, a marine biologist in the local area, says time could simply have run out for Fungie.
He explained: “I would say that at this stage, because he hasn’t returned, we’re looking at the age profile.
“Basically what happens to old dolphins at that stage is that they’re unable to catch their own food and with his age profile, he has possibly died of starvation.”
However, old age is not the only possible cause for Fungie’s mysterious disappearance – the could be happier outcomes.
Fungie could have left the bay because of large numbers of other dolphins in the local area.
He could also have been chasing sprat, which are dolphins favourite food, further out to sea.
And in the happiest outcome – Fungie, who has been alone ever since he arrived off the coast of Dingle, could have eloped with a partner.
Tragically, it’s also possible the loveable dolphin has died of starvation.
Dr Flannery said: “A wild animal that has to catch his own fish for 40 or 50 years, he would be slowing down, like we all do coming up to that age.
“And trying to catch fish won’t be as easy, so the possibility of starvation comes into play – that he could have died of hunger or something like that.”
And while locals are heartbroken at the loss of their friend from the sea, Fungie’s disappearance will also have a devastating impact on the town’s economy.
As such a big tourist draw, the dolphin is directly responsible for an estimated up to 100 jobs in the Irish town – and local politicians have said if he doesn’t return they will appeal to the government for funding.
Councillor Breandán Fitzgerald said: “If you had said it to me a month or a week ago, could 2020 get any worse, I’d have probably said no.
“But next minute, all of a sudden, if Fungie doesn’t come back it’ll be a desperate year altogether.”