The ocean sunfish is really strange looking. It looks like some character straight out of Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. with ginormous dorsal and anal fins and tiny pectoral fins floating around with its mouth wide open till the end of time. And what happened to its back half? Where is the tail? You will often hear people say that evolution has not been nice to this fish, which makes you wonder how do they survive?
First off the ocean sunfish is huge! It can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh over 5,000 pounds, making its sheer size alone a defense against most predators. Even when they are young and much smaller, they still grow incredibly fast. One individual in the Monterey Bay Aquarium gained over 800 pounds in only 15 months! Not to mention female sunfish can produce 300 million eggs, which is more than any vertebrate on earth. So basically hundreds of millions of tiny ocean sunfish are born and then they start to grow rapidly, which definitely helps them survive.
The ocean sunfish also has incredibly thick, elastic skin which acts as a protective barrier. However, their skin is not tough enough to resist parasites, which are often seen attached to these animals. Parasites are nothing the sunfish can’t handle though! Ocean sunfish will allow various cleaner fishes to rid their exteriors of parasites or they will come to the surface and drift along while basking in the sunlight. This behavior allows for birds to come and peck off the parasites! Another survival method for the sunfish.
Interestingly enough, sunbathing was exactly what the Mola mola was doing when the fishermen from the video stumbled upon it, but they assumed the animal was hurt and tried to hook the fish to bring it on board. Even though these Bostonians ended up letting the fish go, which was the best decision, they probably stressed the poor fish out and could have injured it. It is true that once the sunfish are full size, they face a small threat from natural predators. Unfortunately these slow moving fish are highly susceptible to nets and other fish catching methods used by commercial fisheries, resulting in declining populations around the world. Today the ocean sunfish is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
So when you come across some strange animal and you are completely fascinated, ask your questions, take some pictures and video, and let people know what you saw. Find out what it is, learn about the animal, and then educate others. These two fishermen definitely did all those things and brought more awareness to the people of our area about this fish. What they could have done differently: give the animal its space, respect the animal in its natural habitat, and please don’t try to hook it. You never know what endangered, threatened or vulnerable species you may be disrupting.