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Sunfish, Moonfish: It’s all Mola mola

What is a Mola mola? It’s a really big, really gentle, and really strange-looking fish. Mola mola is the scientific name, and it’s just so fun to say that it’s what I prefer to call them. (And I don’t think I’m alone in this.) They seem to most frequently go by the name Ocean Sunfish in English, and they are called Ocean Moonfish in French. (Nobody calls them Starfish; that’s been taken.)

Here’s a cool factoid: they are the largest known bony fish (remember, sharks are cartilaginous — no bones about it). The Mola mola‘s average adult weight is 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms), and they can grow to 10 feet (3.3 meters) in diameter. Diameter. It’s not often you hear a fish size reported in diameter. It’s because the tail fin (the caudal fin) of the sunfish is not your typical tail — it’s truncated and weird and called a clavus. Like I said, they are strange looking…

Mola mola in the Galapagos. Photo by Mohamed A AlQubaisi.

Mola mola in the Galapagos. Photo by Mohamed A AlQubaisi.

At Punta Vicente Roca, one of my two personal most favorite dives sites in the Galapagos that I visited from aboard the M/V Galapagos Sky, we had the great, great pleasure of diving with these animals. Below is a photo of me (the headless diver in the yellow split-fins) trying to get out from underneath one of the massive sunfish on our third and final dive that day… It’s possibly the most awesome moment I have had underwater in 15 years of diving, so far.

Mola mola and yours truly. Photo by John Dorsett.

Mola mola and yours truly. Photo by John Dorsett.

Next is the photo that I was taking while the above photo was taken of me skittering backwards. He’s kind of staring at me.

Mola mola eyeing a diver (me). Photo by Jen Vanderhoof.

Mola mola eyeing a diver (me). Photo by Jen Vanderhoof.

And later that day we did a top-side panga ride and saw some at the surface. Here’s another cool factoid: Mola mola swim around using their dorsal and anal fins (because they don’t have tail fins!), and often the dorsal fin will protrude from the surface of the water and get mistaken for a shark fin. But. Sunfish dorsal fins move back and forth as they swim, and that makes it look like they are waving… So long, farewell… But sharks swim in such a way that their dorsal fins don’t wave — or waver. (I mean, sharks don’t waver. Ever. Think about it.)

Mola mola at the surface in Galapagos. Photo by Jen Vanderhoof.

Mola mola at the surface in Galapagos. Photo by Jen Vanderhoof.

I have now seen sunfish while diving in the Galapagos Islands. That was a first for me and spectacular. But it turns out they have a huge range – they are in temperate and tropical waters in every ocean in the world. Actually, I’ve even seen them at the surface where I live, in Puget Sound waters (temperate? debatable).

*From aboard the M/V Orion, Mola mola show up in the South of Maldives in Thaa Atoll and Gaafu Atolls between February and March.

*In the Philippines, there are sunfish in the area, but they are quite rare. The best chance of seeing one would be from the M/V Atlantis Azores when the boat is in search of thresher sharks in Malapascua.

*They’ve even been seen in Cocos. They’re not common, but a guest on the M/V Sea Hunter took an awesome photo, posted here.

*And in Indonesia, there is a famous place near Bali to see sunfish near the Island of Nusa Penida at a dive site called Crystal Bay. They are seen there often, especially from June to September when the water is colder. A guest aboard the S M/V WAOW captured some video at Manta Alley in South Komodo — even though it’s Manta Alley there were no mantas that day, but instead they were treated in a very big way by getting to dive with Mola mola, which is really rare to see at that location. Check out the video:

There are so many interesting facts about these animals I may have to write about them again. For now — a National Geographic blog was written a few weeks ago in response to a really cool photo of an ocean sunfish that started going viral on the internet. In case you’re one of the few people who’s not been infected, er, seen the photo, it’s in the article here.

Otherwise — no major insights this week into the world of diving — just a portrait of these giant weird and completely wonderful animals.

Until next week…!

But P.S. If you’re a big underwater life nerd like me, you might be interested in the relatives of the sunfish on; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Ocean Sunfish page, which has some more great photos;, which has good fish data about them; and a National Geographic page all about the species.

1 Comment on Sunfish, Moonfish: It’s all Mola mola

  1. Matt McGee
    October 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm (3 years ago)

    I was just in Indonesia, and hoped that we would see one. We did not. They are are crazy looking fish, and is on my wishlist…


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