For more than two weeks, those living close to Dingle Bay in Ireland have been constantly scanning the sea for a glimpse of Fungie the dolphin.
The adult male dolphin set up home in the bay, just off the coast of County Kerry, 37 years ago and has been a regular in locals lives ever since.
But just over two weeks ago – despite almost daily sightings for almost four decades – Fungie has vanished.
It has left the people of the town of Dingle devastated, not to mention the scores of tourists who flock to the sleepy seaside town each year to see the famous dolphin.
Fungie, a bottleneck dolphin, has always loved to spend time in the company of humans and has become a vital and much-loved part of the community.
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 thought to be in his early to mid-40s.
In the wild, dolphins has a life expectancy of around 50, and it has been feared Fungie’s time is up.
But one expert believes there could be a much happier explanation.
Recent research by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has discovered that several dolphins who made their home in the nearby Shannon Estuary and had vanished had actually just moved on.
They had initially been presumed dead but had in fact simply moved along the coast – and there is now hope that this is what’s happened to Fungie.
However, they did warn that as there have been no confirmed sightings of the dolphin for the last two weeks, the worst could still sadly be true.
This is a view echoed by Dr Kevin Flannery, a marine biologist in the local area.
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.”