Dopey Dick’s Derry visit on BBC

A British Army patrol boat tries to coax the killer whale out of the Foyle.

A British Army patrol boat tries to coax the killer whale out of the Foyle.

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A new television programme which focuses on an event which captured the imagination of Derry people almost 40 years ago will be screened next week.

‘Real Lives Reunited’ - which will be televised on BBC One Northern Ireland next Monday, October 19, - will feature the tale of ‘Dopey Dick’, the killer whale which had the city hooked back in 1977.

Dopey Dick in the River Foyle in 1977.

Dopey Dick in the River Foyle in 1977.

Monday night’s programme will feature archive footage of ‘Dopey’ in the Foyle as well as interviews with people who recall the historic visit.

Today, the ‘Journal’ takes a trip down memory lane to recall those heady days towards the end of 1977 when an Orca had Derry - and further afield - in its metaphorical grip.

‘Huge Whale in the Foyle’, the front page of the ‘Journal’ of November 8, 1977, exclaimed.

“Golfers at City of Derry Golf Club couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw what seemed to be a whale swimming in the Foyle, the ‘Journal’ report continued before adding that officials from the Foyle Fisheries Commission “confirmed yesterday that it was, in fact, a whale of over 20 feet in length.”

A modern interpretation of Dopey Dick's visit to Derry was immortalised on a wall at the Cathedral Youth Club in the Fountain Estate.

A modern interpretation of Dopey Dick's visit to Derry was immortalised on a wall at the Cathedral Youth Club in the Fountain Estate.

Little at this stage was known about the strange visitor to the Foyle. “What type the whale is is not yet known,” the ‘Journal’ story continued. “How the whale arrived in the River Foyle so far upstream is baffling marine experts,” it reports.

Dr Richard Briggs, of the Fisheries’ research lab in Coleraine, said he had never heard of such an incident in the Foyle. By the following Friday, November 11, the ‘Journal’ front page included the headline: ‘Operation Rescue launched but Dopey Dick stays put in the Foyle’.

By now, the city had taken to the strange visitor - identified as a killer whale - and bestowed upon him the moniker, ‘Dopey Dick’.

A rescue operation launched the previous day had had little success. Rescuers had hoped to herd the mammoth mammal as far as Craigavon Bridge but “it apparently decided it was not going any further and it turned around and went back up stream,” the ‘Journal’ noted.

Crowds were now flocking to the river on a daily basis to see the strange beast in the Foyle. But still no one was sure how Dick came to be there.

“One theory being put forward,“ the ‘Journal’ reported, “is that it’s radar system has been damaged by parasites.”

Dr Tony Pitcher, a University of Ulster biology professor, said Dopey Dick was most likely a male killer whale and he further noted that whales affected by parasites often run aground on beaches and will strand themselves again if towed out to sea. He also noted that killer whales were “voracious predators... who could kill a seal with a single snap of its jaws.”

The professor, the ‘Journal’ recorded, was not aware of any incidents where a killer whale had attacked humans.

Despite the Professor’s assurances, the Derry public needn’t have worried. On Tuesday, November 15, the ‘Journal’ front page recorded that Dopey Dick ‘went quietly.’ The killer whale, it seems, was not as dopey as Derry thought.

“He headed off down river of his own accord on Saturday afternoon, ” said the ‘Journal’. “He has not been since and it is believed he might, at last, be on his way back to his natural home.”

Searches of the Foyle, from Magheramason to Culmore Point, could find no trace of the whale who had entered Derry folklore.

The ‘Journal’ reported the whale “broke the psychological barrier and was last seen down river at Culmore on Saturday afternoon.”

The last sighting of Dick - at Rosses Point on the banks of the Foyle - “was as dusk fell on Saturday evening.”

Those who hadn’t seen him had missed the boat. Police said they had been inundated with calls from people from far and wide wanting to know if the whale was still in the Foyle “because they wanted to travel to Derry so that their children could get a glimpse of it.”

But Dopey Dick, one of Derry’s great characters, was gone... but, apparently, not forgotten!

‘Real Lives Reunited’ will be screened on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday evening at 7.30 p.m.