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Rarity of Oregon / Washington Coast: the Trippy Mola Mola / Sunfish (Video)

Published 07/10/020 at 5:44 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

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(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – They’re not spotted often along the Oregon or Washington coast, but when they do it’s sort of a big deal. The Mola mola or ocean sunfish usually lives well south of the Pacific Northwest (and reportedly well offshore), but occasionally the kooky, large, semi-round fish wanders as north as British Columbia. Periodically, maybe once a year or every few years, one washes up on the beach – almost always dead – and it causes a small media stir. (Photo above courtesy Seaside Aquarium).

Up on the Washington coast it’s a rarer sight, though there’s been some documentation of some spotted just north of the Olympic National Park, even by kayakers. When the Seaside Aquarium initially started alerting media to its beach finds in the mid 2000s, the first sunfish it reported caused a sizable media frenzy with Japanese media especially interested in the trippy aquatic dweller. The story went international.

Mola mola normally dwell in warmer climates and waters, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the Seaside Aquarium. When they show up here it’s usually because warmer currents are out off Oregon or Washington shores, and they get somewhat “tricked” into coming this far north. This can get problematic for them, especially if it’s winter, as the beasties can get cold-stunned. It’s the same trick-of-the-tide that brings sea turtles up to these coastlines in winter, and then when the warm currents run out the turtles usually get killed by the cold.

One of the more spectacular sightings of an ocean sunfish happened just last September (of 2019), when ODFW caught rare video of one off the central Oregon coast, near Depoe Bay. It was in what is called the Otter Rock Marine Reserve, but there were also reports around Manzanita at the Cape Falcon Marine Reserve.

The freaky fish was videoed moving around the water near the surface and looking a bit like an alien species seen in the first incarnation of Outer Limits. That’s no surprise, considering what Seaside Aquarium’s Tiffany Boothe told Oregon Coast Beach Connection.

“These are unique fish that feed on jellyfish and seem to spend most of their time basking in the sun, lazily floating along the ocean's surface,” Booth said.

Indeed, the day ODFW caught this critter in-camera there were some rather extraordinary circumstances.

“The day this sunfish was spotted in Otter Rock Marine Reserve, surface water temperatures were on the warmer side, which may explain why sunfish were showing up,” ODFW said. “Surface water temperatures usually hover around 50 degrees; during our SCUBA surveys divers reported temperatures of 63 degrees (at 30 feet depth).”

Photo above courtesy Seaside Aquarium

The summer of 2019 had exceptionally high water temperatures, making it a bit legendary. Rarely-seen ocean sightings were taking place all over, including a beaked whale and some blue whales on the central Oregon coast.

ODFW said the Mola mola is a strange one in appearance, with its bullet-like body and truncated tail. The ocean sunfish can also be mistaken for sharks as it meanders close to shore, because of a large dorsal fin up top.

Another interesting facet of these kooky creatures is that they are interested in humans. They are known to be quite curious and approach divers and small boats. They pose no threat, however, unless you’re a jellyfish or zooplankton. Then you’re fair game as a regular part of their diet.

ODFW said sunfish are the largest of the bony fish and can get up to 11 feet long and weigh up to just over two thousand pounds. However, Seaside Aquarium reports most of its Mola mola beach finds are around three to five feet.

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Rarity of Oregon / Washington Coast: the Trippy Mola Mola / Sunfish (Video)
Photo courtesy ODFW

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