No need to fear the ocean sunfish

For the last couple of weeks this column has been about sharks, a species that in general, elicits a primordial fear in humans.
This week it might be interesting to write about ocean sunfish “Mola mola” that are often found in our waters during the late summer and fall when our waters are warm. 
This oddball fish is a gentle giant that is often mistaken for sharks due to their large, somewhat pointed dorsal fin, that when seen protruding above the waves does look like one of those toothy critters featured in the movie “Jaws. Sunfish, however, are far from dangerous, unless one lands in your lap, because they do grow to weights in excess of 500 pounds.
However, due to their large size and pointed (actually kind of rounded) but triangular dorsal and ventral fins, that with a fairly unimpressive and blunt tail propels them along as they feed on their primary prey: jelly fish, which are slow-moving and very abundant at times. 
My first of a fair number of sightings of these fish was during a beautiful fall day while attending high school school at NFA during the mid-60s.
A friend, Gil Liepold, who sadly passed away a few years ago, and I were drifting the riled waters of the Race when  we spotted a large fin that we thought might be a shark. 
This was long before the days of the famous movie that came out a during the ‘70s.
We ran the boat over to investigate.
It was a large ocean sunfish that sadly someone had clipped with a propeller and put a couple of long gouges into the fish, so it looked gravely injured as it lolled along just under the surface.
Totally ignorant of this odd-looking species when we saw it, we thought it might be some kind of deep sea species that could have some value to science, so we decided to try to put a rope through its mouth and out its gills, which would have been a real trick even if it was dead because it was so gigantic (we figured at least 400-to-500 pounds). It was the size of a small dinner table as it moved lazily along, sideways in the water.
Gil maneuvered the boat towards the giant’s head. My job was to put a gaff in its mouth so we could pull a rope through its gills and tow it in to shore. Or so we thought. I could see it didn’t have any teeth to be concerned about.
As I leaned over the side of the speed boat, Gil said don’t drop that gaff, we’ll need it for the bluefish.
The nanosecond I put that gaff hook into its mouth  with the chord on the butt-end foolishly wrapped around my wrist, the sunfish came to life. 
It tilted its bulk toward the bottom and took off nearly pulling me out of the boat, which probably would not have ended well for this then rookie saltwater angler. 
With Gil’s stern warning still in wringing in my ears I held on for literally dear life and about the time the top of my head was washed by a wave, the gaff straightened and the huge fish disappeared into the depths. 
The huge fish was neither mortally wounded nor as slow and weak as it appeared to be. The lesson to be learned during this and a couple of other incidents over the years is to be very careful and respectful when handling, landing or dehooking any large fish, though ironically the jabs from spines landed me in the hospital two times over 50 years on the water due to me contracting “staph infections” which are no picnic and can be deadly dangerous.
Over the years and late in the summer we’ve seen many more “Mola mola”, always alone and near the surface both within sight of swimming beaches as well as out in the open ocean while fishing for shark and tuna.
About 20 years ago, my son and I were drifting for fluke a few hundred yards off Misquamicut Beach when we spotted a pretty good-sized ocean sunfish as it moved past the boat. 
I took out my camera and snapped a couple photos before it disappeared from sight, saying to him, if that thing gets much closer to shore and is tipped up so its fin shows, I bet the life guards will clear the beach. as they well should if any sort of danger is perceived. 
I said to him, “Watch, I bet there will be a shark sighting report of some sort on the evening news today or tomorrow.”
Fluking was good so we got home early for supper, filleted the fish,  and settled down for a break before cooking our dinner, along with some delicious Connecticut grown sweet corn.  Sure enough, the evening news had a short clip that said swimmers were cleared off a southern Rhode Island beach due to the sighting of a large “shark”. 
My guess, more accurately, it should have said the dorsal fin of an ocean sunfish. An easy mistake to make being that these fish don’t spend too much time with their fins exposed though from the right angle it could easily look like the more pointed dorsal fin of a potentially dangerous species of shark. As slow and clunky as they look these fish are surprisingly powerful and agile.
Another time we saw a sunfish swimming parallel to Fishers Island with the prevailing tide. We were near one of the sand beaches that is only a short distance from deeper waters where the fish was spotted and it had disappeared from sight quickly while one of us was playing a striped bass that was large enough to take a few minutes to land, dehook and release. The boat was pulled and drifted out of the zone we were targeting so we started up and started to motor back in towards the structure we had been working.
Suddenly that giant fish, about halfway between us and the rocky beach, came leaping clear out of water, clearing the small waves by a couple of feet. The splash was large enough to rock the boat as we passed over it on the way back to our spot. 
That was the first and only time I’ve seen one jump, which only impressed the fact that this species is strong and powerful. They are pretty much left alone by fishermen because they have no food value, probably due to their diet.
Somehow, jellyfish don’t seem very tasty to me but they are doing something right because they have been living in our oceans for hundreds of millions of years.  
We figured the big fish must have moved over what was a kind of shelf with a fairly steep but not very big drop off, touched the bottom, panicked, jumped and vacated that area. It was nowhere near where it had made a pretty big hole in the water because we drove over to get a look and maybe a photo if it was still in the area but it was nowhere to be seen.
These large, unique fish are a bundle of contradictions between their abilities and appearance. No need to fear them, though should you have an encounter, take a look, photos or video for your friends but leave them alone so there is no point in messing with them in any way, like we did during that first encounter half a century ago, before myself or my friends even knew this species even existed.


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