Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish) Heaven

5 Dec

No this is not a blog about eating Mola Mola (aka the ocean sunfish), because Molas are filled with worms and parasites and I’ve heard they taste like crap.  It’s a story about freediving with some in the open ocean.

Mola Mola’s are often said to be the nerds of the sea.  They are awkward looking, with their big heads and funny fins they look more alien than fish and a lot of other animals beat them up.  Sea turtles in aquariums sometimes chase them around, wicked sea lions catch them and tear their fins off for fun.  They are very curious fish, and have some remarkable traits.  Mola’s are huge, they are said to be the largest KNOWN (I always say “known” rather than give a definite answer when I’m telling facts to school kids because a lot of times they’ll find some other creature lurking in the deep blue that might be bigger, faster etc) BONY fish (before you raise your wiseass hands, sharks are not bony fish and whales are mammals you dummy)  in the ocean and can reach 5000 pounds and over 10 feet long.  They are found in both tropical and temperate oceans and usually feed on jellyfish and other types of plankton.

They are awesome to watch in a Aquarium, if you ever have a chance head down to Monterey Bay Aquarium because they usually have one or two on display in their open ocean tank.  You can’t but help be attracted to the big brute as it stares at you with it’s gigantic unblinking eyes and wiggles its modified fins.  I don’t know of a mola that’s purposely harmed anyone, I’d love to have one at my aquarium but you’d have to have a tank of gigantic proportions because they are true blue water/pelagic animals.

However, if you are lucky, you might get a chance to see one in the ocean if you spend a little time out there.  Often times you’ll see them sunning themselves on the surface with their gigantic dorsal fin sticking out of the water and we often find them around kelp paddies (floating mats of kelp in the middle of the ocean).  Once when I was freediving I was startled because I saw two fins headed towards my buddy, I thought for sure it was the top and tail fin of a large shark, I hollared out to my buddy who hauled ass back to my boat and then we both laughed when we saw it was just a couple of molas.

I have a cool job, I’ve said that many times before and I’ve also blogged about being a marine biologist.  One of the coolest parts of my job is I actually get paid to go diving, both freediving and tank diving.  I should back up a bit and lay some history down first…

About five or so years ago we had a large circular tank built at the aquarium, it is round with a giant stainless steel base where kids can climb under and stick their heads into a dome shaped part of the tank and get an idea of what it’s like to swim with fish.  We ended up putting a kelp paddy in that tank and were trying to fill it with kelp paddy fish.  That’s the hard part.  In the wild, pretty much all the fish that hide in/around the floating kelp paddies are technically dead fish.  They are alive of course and move around, but that kelp deteriorates in 45 or so days (live kelp needs to be held down to the bottom of the ocean where it can gather nutrients and sunlight) and all of those baby fish that were hiding in there get eaten if that paddy doesn’t end up by some structure.  I’ve seen paddies with thousands of baby fish, little spanish mackerel, yellowtail, half moons, opaleye, rockfish etc all huddling around the kelp.  We used to scoop up the paddy a little at a time, it’s a tedious job and we’d only get about 10% of the fish under the paddy.  I won’t go into the details because it’s a secret but I devised a way that two freedivers could collect most of those fish on the paddy.  We take them back to the aquarium and then grow them up and release them or give them to other aquariums when they outgrow our tanks in less than a year.  It’s a better life than being consumed by predators in 45 days!

A week or so ago I was on a collection trip and when we were underwater I was amazed to see 30 mola mola schooled up!  Of course I had no camera and I cursed myself a fool for missing out on some cool footage.  It was with that thought that I carefully packed up my underwater video camera and got it ready when we planned our next trip.  The camera sat in my dive bag bouncing safely among my soft wetsuit as our work boat hauled ass towards Catalina Island.  There was no wind and very little swell, perfect conditions for spotting the kelp paddies.  I’ve got a knack for spotting them out at a distance and in short time saw one paddy.  We pulled up and saw a giant mola mola, maybe five feet across swimming around it but there were no signs of the baby fish we were looking for so we kept going.

The next paddy had a few mola on the surface so I quickly put my fins and gear on, grabbed my camera and then hopped in.  And when I did look around I had quite a site to behold. Around me a school of 20-30 baby foot long mola mola waggled around.  At first they swam quickly away, I sat still and  after a few minutes I saw them come back towards me.  I clicked on my camera and took pictures and video of the fish.

They would eye me and come close, then swim away, all the while a school of half moon perch circled us.  Different plankton drifted by, I saw clear jellyfish, tiny quarter sized ctenophores (comb jellies) and chains of siphonophores.  Huge chains of salps that looked like UFO’s drifted around me.  I reached out and brushed against a mola and then it flapped its fins like a bird and took off, only to return a second later.  I took a breath of air, spit out my snorkel and made a drop, the fish came closer and closer and then I simply reached out and carefully grabbed it.  We both came to the surface, I showed my colleagues and we all laughed as I carefully released the little fish.  It flapped away and then did a turn and came back, swam right under me and then flew away again.  It was quite an experience to say the least!

We stopped off at several paddies during that morning, almost every one had a bunch of molas around them.  Most of the time they would watch me and come closer to inspect the visitor to their home.  We ended up catching a bunch of baby fish, but not enough to fill the huge tank.

That’s good news for me, that means I might have one more chance to swim with my molas again in a few weeks if the weather cooperates…

Here’s a link to the video I shot, unfortunately I had to remove the soundtrack that I had on there because of youtubes policies.  If you like the video, please click on one of the window ads that show up inside the video, I earn a small amount for each click :).

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