What follows is an article that was placed in the Irish Times newspapers on the 9th of May, 2008. It talks about the IrishDolphins International Conference in support of interactive dolphins and the motivations we had in organising that conference. As far as I know it is the most positive article in support of interactives that I have read in popular media in Ireland at least. Maybe there is change in the air...
Hooked by dolphins
An international conference in Dingle may throw some light on why dolphins choose so readily to communicate with humans, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir
A SOLITARY FIGURE swims from the shore as dawn breaks over the bay. A dorsal fin appears in the water. Fungie, one of the world's most famous interactive dolphins, approaches and, before long, this unusual pair - human and wild creature - are playing together in the open sea.
"On safari in Africa, you don't expect a lion to trot up and say 'hello'," says Graham Timmins, who was once that very swimmer. "Nor do eagles perch on your arm. But this is exactly what happens with interactive dolphins. They are genuinely interested in communicating with us."
Why do they choose to communicate? And what can such interaction teach us about communication between species? These questions and more will be up for discussion at the Irish Dolphins International Conference in support of Interactive Dolphins to be held in Dingle from Monday to Wednesday next week. The first conference of its kind in the world, it's being organised by Graham and fellow dolphin enthusiast Keith Buchanan. "This is the first ever event specifically about interactive dolphins," explains Keith. "We don't know what is going to come out of it, but it will be interesting to discuss what's happening in the meeting between the two species."
Keith and Graham's decision to hold the conference stems from the relationship they developed with Fungie. Keith was always fascinated by the dolphins he would see in his native South Africa. Then, while living in London in the late 1980s, he heard about Fungie's arrival in Dingle and came to visit. In 1992, he moved there in order to be able to swim with the dolphin more often.
"Swimming with a wild dolphin in a wild environment is an incredibly positive experience," he says.
Graham, originally from Shropshire in the UK, fell for Fungie in a similar way. "Before Fungie, I didn't know there was such a thing as dolphins you could swim with," he remembers. His first swim with Fungie was in 1989 and it proved so overwhelming that he moved to Dingle the following year.
"I'd swim with him every morning before work and again afterwards,"
says Graham. "It was a very intense time when it was possible to have a special relationship with Fungie." It's this relationship that so captivated Keith and Graham. "Fungie would recognise us," says Graham.
"He knew one person from another and would behave differently with different people."
In 2000, following several sightings of interactive dolphins off the west coast of Ireland, Graham and Keith decided to take their passion one step further. They set up a website, www.irishdolphins.com, dedicated to documenting the activities of these mammals.
"Dolphins that interact with people are rare," says Graham. "There are maybe 60 cases on record worldwide in the past 50 years and we had five in Ireland in 10 years - Dusty in Clare, Duggie off Tory Island, Venus off the Blasket Islands, Fungie and Dony. We realised something interesting was going on and wanted to record it."
To date, no research has been conducted into why these dolphins interact with people. Graham and Keith hope their records will be used for such research in the future. In the meantime, they are making discoveries of their own. Until recently, the commonly-held view of interactive dolphins was that they were solitary creatures that chose regular contact with humans instead of remaining in a pod and that they adopted a home range - such as Fungie has in Dingle.
Dony broke the rules. He has travelled from Kerry to England and France and back. "We were the first to realise it was the same dolphin in all these locations," says Graham. "Nobody would believe us because nobody knew dolphins could travel so many thousands of miles."
Besides creating a database of interactive dolphin behaviour, Keith had another motive in setting up the website. "At the time, everything in the media about swimming with dolphins was so extremely the opposite of our experience that I felt we should give our point of view," he explains. "Being able to meet a dolphin on his own terms is such a powerful thing." Despite his efforts, official conservation bodies such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group still discourage people from swimming with dolphins. This, suggest Keith and Graham, may be based on misunderstanding.
"It's a failure to distinguish between dolphins," says Graham.
"Ordinary dolphins won't let you swim with them but interactive dolphins initiate contact with humans. They make the moves, not us."
They both reject the idea of humans posing a threat to dolphins.
"People don't realise how smart dolphins are," says Keith. "They are in control of the situation. One flick of their tail and they are gone." By complying with official advice and refusing to interact with these unusual animals, Keith and Graham believe we are ignoring a valuable opportunity to learn more about communication between species.
Essentially, this is what Keith and Graham are hoping to do at the conference. They have invited experts from a wide range of disciplines, including Dr Toni Frohoff, a renowned marine biologist; Margaux Dodds, founder of the UK Marine Connection charity; and Trevor Read, who swam with Fungie for years.
"It's not just a science-based conference," says Keith. "We've invited well-known experts as well as people whose only qualification is that they have spent hours in the water with dolphins - something that makes them experts in our eyes. With so many different experiences, it will be an amazing opportunity to learn about why these dolphins behave the way they do."
Graham is convinced many of the visitors will be intrigued by the Irish situation. "Ireland is seen as a model," he explains. "We've had lots of interactive dolphins though nobody can explain why. People are wondering what's different here and what they can learn from us."
What's Fungie up to now? Graham's relationship with this particular dolphin ended in 1994. "He wasn't interested anymore," he says. "He had his favourites and I was no longer one of them." Keith still tries to swim with him from time to time. "I don't usually see him though,"
he admits. "Or I might catch a glimpse of him as he passes by." These interactive dolphins are unpredictable creatures.
For more information about the conference, visit www.irishdolphins.com .
Author: Sharon Ní Chonchúir