PANAMA CITY BEACH — It was one of those times when you have no idea what you are looking at.
Flopping at the surface, the fish seemed to be nothing short of impossibly proportioned. Its tail was a scalloped stump. Its fins looked too far back and too small for its body. In short, it looked like the kind of fish a small child might draw.
Staring at it, Patrick Ashley had “no clue what it was.” So he did the logical thing, took a picture and posted it on the Panama City Fishing Facebook Page.
“What in the world is this?” he wrote. “Never seen one before.”
The answer was swift: ocean sunfish, also known as mola mola.
In a word, the ocean sunfish is “curious” — at least that’s the term NOAA Fisheries went with on their fact page. It’s found in all major oceans, can weigh up to 4,850 pounds and lives on a diet of mostly jellyfish.
“Somewhere during this long evolutionary history, the mola lost its tail,” the NOAA fact sheet reads. “This does not seem to slow the fish down too much; smaller animals have been seen leaping out of the water. Not having a tail does not hinder their foraging either. Individuals feed primarily on gelatenous zooplankton which themselves are not strong swimmers.”
Sighting of them are typically infrequent, according to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation video, but two different sightings have been documented in Bay County this week as Victor Lopez also shared a video of one taken by Laguna Beach. Ashley said he spotted the sunfish about four miles offshore while trolling.
“Offshore fisherman are known to every now and again run into them at the surface,” said Fish and Wildlife Research Institute biologist Beau Yeiser in the 2014 video. “They could be doing any number of things. A lot of times they are basking for some sun or it’s been theorized that because they have so many parasites they are actually allowing birds to come and peck the parasites off them.”
Ashley, of Georgia, was so taken with the bizarre fish, they turned the boat around to get a better look.
“It’s a neat fish,” he concluded.
Ocean sunfish are targeted for dinner in some Asian countries, according to NOAA, but for the most part they are left alone.