In THE early 1980s Jan Ploeg was out of ideas. A talented sculptor, he hadn’t finished a work in close to six months. Worse still, the ideas had stopped coming. It was this creative block that set him on a path that would change his life forever.
One day, while walking along the beach, searching for inspiration, he allowed his mind to wonder. He imagined a giant whale, leaping from the water and crashing down with a great splash before him. He immediately got to his knees and started working with the sand and soon he had sculpted the image of that whale. And just like that, his creative mind was free again.
This was the first step. Soon after, Jan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that really brought dolphins into his life and eventually led to a deep friendship with the dolphin that we call Dusty.
“From that moment on [the moment with the whale] I was sucked into the world of whales and dolphins. I am still in that world of whales and dolphins but there was another reason why I came to Ireland, the other reason is that I am bipolar. I was invited to swim with pilot whales in Tenerife in 1990 and while I was there I heard about the healing properties that dolphins have for people with a mental affliction,” said Jan.
“So three years later I took the step and went over to Dingle. I was mesmorised by Fungi. When you have a mental afflictions it’s not like you jump into the water with a dolphin and everything is hunkydorey. It’s much more complicated than that. But I have built my world around dolphins. It has motivated me to go on and brought purpose to my life.”
After spending nine summers with Fungi, the Kerry dolphin changed. He became reclusive, unfriendly almost, and just like that Jan’s time swimming with Fungi was at an end. It was no surprise then, that when Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, alerted Jan to the presence of Dusty in 2002, he soon made Clare his home.
Jan first came to Clare on a rescue mission. Dusty was swimming too close to the rocks around the Cliffs of Moher and he was tasked with luring the young dolphin to safety.
With his mono-fin and self designed water-wing, Jan swims almost like a dolphin. And soon, man and dolphin met on equal footing, and the relationship between Jan and Dusty began to grow.
“I remember one of our first meetings, I was swimming with the waterwing and I offered it to Dusty. I gave it to her, and I wondered would she do something with it. She hit it with her head and she lost it and that was that,” he said.
“The next day I offered the waterwing to her again and what she did still amazes me. She went on her back and trapped the waterwing between her forehead and her snout and she raced away with it. She figures out that the waterwings floats and she was able to figure out how to take it away. So she raced away with it. That showed me a level of problem solving ability which was beyond my reckoning.
“She accepted me from day one. She recognised in my way of swimming a sort of a kinship. I’ve always though that. The way she is, she swims differently with different people. That’s how she develops a personal relationship with different people.
“I get into the water and usually before I put my mono-fin on she is already there, behind my shoulder. She likes to approach people from behind. It’s kind of a cheeky thing I think, she likes to surprise people. I’ve often seen people swimming in the water and she is right behind them. They are looking everywhere to try and see her and she is right behind them.
“We are more than friends. I would define my relationship with Dusty as being more like family. There are only a handful of swimmers [who interact with Dusty] but it’s not like we are a club with a chair and that. But we all know each other and sometimes we call each other when we go to swim [with Dusty]. Last weekend three of us went out to swim with Dusty on Inis Oírr and swam with her then. It’s like a coalition. I think we are all like family to Dusty but I don’t have any big hopes about how Dusty see us. Some people think that she is going into a lonely period over the winter because we won’t be able to swim with her, but I don’t think that we are important to her as that. We are interesting to her, we study her and she studies us.”
Jan’s friendship with Dusty has a massive influence on his life. He moved to Ireland in 2002 and spent nine years living out of the back of his car in Fanore, just to be close to her.
“In the beginning the winters were mild but about four years ago there was a very hard winter, and I was luck enough to get a house for two months of that winter. That was pretty sweet,” he said.
“I thought everybody could have that sort of [close] experience with Dusty, before the troubles [a number of recent incidents between Dusty and swimmers]. On my website, Dolphin Address, I did encourage people to swim with her – and I think I have inspired quite a few people to do that.
“But after the incidents last year in Doolin [where a number of swimmers were injured while swimming with Dusty] I don’t do that anymore. I don’t want to be responsible for somebody getting hurt. I can’t be responsible for somebody going into the water because people do things that are stupid. It is just ignorance. They have an image of dolphins from TV, from Flipper or other television shows. They have this image that dolphins love to tow people around by their dorsal fin but Dusty does not like that at all. I’ve seen people make a dive for her to hold on to her fin and she quickly goes away. It’s plain to see that she doesn’t like that. Then you have the people who jump in on top of her. She is a very sensitive being and when a big person lands right beside her – it startles her. Imagine if a person jumped down beside a cow. That would startle the cow, but people don’t understand these things. So I am much more reserved now [about encouraging people to swim with Dusty] and I would not encourage people to go into the water who have no experience with her.
“This year in Inis Oírr, there were mainly two groups of people that Dusty was aggressive towards. The first group was people who go half way into the water, showing off to their friends, and sort-of dare her to do something. The other group is the little children who run into the water screaming. She has very sensitive hearing so this sort of noise is something that really is upsetting to her. Last year in Doolin, most of the attacks you could trace back to the behaviour of the people but this year on Inis Oirr it’s different, it’s like she is almost seeking it [a conflict]. When somebody comes out she is almost seeking that person now. I’m not sure if it’s a territorial thing, she does have territorial traits but this is a bit over the top. It’s not always simple so suss out a dolphin.”
Despite Dusty’s more changeable nature in recent years, her realtionship with Jan has remained as strong as ever.
“Not at all, our relationship has never changed. Even this year I was just finishing up swimming with her on Inis Oírr, and there was someone else going into the water. She went over there, chased that person out of the water and then came back to me looking to be cuddled,” he says.
Jan documents his experiences with Dusty on his website entitled Dolphin Address which can be located on www.janploeg.nl