It’s a Shark! It’s a Submarine! It’s a Bathysphere! It’s a …Fish?

"“…a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”"

Winston Churchill

The ocean sunfish or mola-mola.
The ocean sunfish or common mola is one of the heaviest known bony fishes in the world. Adults typically weigh between 247 and 1,000 kg.

It’s a fish named after a millstone; it can grow to 3 metres in length and  3.5 metres in height – but only about .2 of a metre wide. The average weight is 1000 kgs, but there are specimens that have reached over 2 300 kgs. It eats jellyfish as a treat with teeth that have fused into a parrot-like beak, but it has normal teeth in its throat. (That’s assuming pharyngeal teeth can be considered ‘normal’.) The female of the species lays 300 000 000 eggs at a time, and probably spends the rest of her life trying to name them. When these eggs hatch into fry, they look like little starfish, with spiny points that disappear as they turn into the fish equivalent of toddlers. Most importantly, we think they have a sense of humour: despite looking like Humpty Dumpty underwater from side on, their dorsal fins look ominously like those of Great White sharks when they cut through the surface of the water, and many are the small-boat sailors and ocean swimmers who have been frightened by the sight of a seriously large fin cruising ominously toward them. There are those who swear they have heard bubbly laughter…

We are talking, of course, about the ocean sunfish, and these remarkable creatures are regularly sighted by guests and crew members aboard our boats. It normally starts off with a yell of ‘Shark! Shark!’, which then tapers off into puzzlement when the shark in question seems to end abruptly after the dorsal fin. ‘Half a shark! Half a shark!’

Sunfish are, to put it mildly, a fishy conundrum, and have become enormously popular sightings on our cruises. Their round flattened shape seems ludicrously out of proportion when compared to other larger denizens of the oceans: sharks and dolphins are sleek and speedy looking, and even whales look like they are designed for ease of passage through the water. Not the sunfish. The millstone name referred to above is its species name – mola mola. Mola is Latin for millstone, and it gives a perfect idea of how puzzled the first ichthyologist must have been to see this rotund monster cruising through the ocean.  It’s more common name around the world is ‘moon fish’ ( maanvispeixe luapoisson lunepeix llunapez lunapesce luna are a few examples), and this is an even more accurate (and romantic) description: it looks for all the world like a full moon with flippers and fins, taking a lazy swim.

Spotting Wild Sea Life from Serenity One Catamaran
Passengers on Serenity One, during a Sunset Cruise, spotting wild sea life.

The sunfish name has – oddly – nothing to do with its shape. It loves sunbathing, apparently, and spends most of the daylight hours horizontally just beneath the surface of the sea. But don’t put this down to laziness. Sunfish are pelagic fish that dive regularly to depths exceeding 600 metres to feed on small fish, jellyfish, and crustaceans. It’s chilly down there, and on resurfacing sunfish lay flat just beneath the surface of the sea to ‘thermally recharge’. The most interesting fact is that these swimming medallions can actually leap out of the water: up to 3 metres high! A breaching sunfish must be one of the planet’s most unusual sights. (“The moon jumped over the cow.” Or catamaran.) They can also build up quite a turn of speed when needed: given that they are eaten by orcas, this is probably a desirable skill in the sunfish world. But – as usual – humans are the worst offenders when it comes to killing off sunfish. Despite the fact that sunfish are a forbidden fish in the European Union, they are caught in great numbers in gillnets: in the Mediterranean, over 70% of the swordfish ‘bycatch’ are sunfish. They don’t survive this atrocity. The other horrible human intervention is death by plastic: a floating plastic bag looks just like a jellyfish, and is likely to get munched by a gullible sunfish. They don’t survive this atrocity either.

Waterfront Charters recommend their Ocean Safaris as the best way to get to see these amazing sea creatures. They have an otherworldly look about them, and watching their fins as they wave through the water (the tell-tale difference between a sunfish fin and a shark fin: the shark’s fins cut straight through the water) and then seeing the huge round bulk underneath – incredible.

It’s an amazing world out on the ocean, and the iconic sunfish are a must-view for those who love our seas. The perennially puzzled look on their faces is easy to explain; they are trying to remember the names of their offspring.

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