In the midst of a crossing from the Cuttle Islands to the Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the summer of 2013, my rudder struck something.
I knew there weren’t any submerged rocks, according to our chart. I immediately spun around and saw a fin in the water behind me. My mind started reeling with what it could be…of course, going to the worst case scenarios first (orca?!?!)…
I had just glided over an ocean sunfish, or mola mola, coming to the surface to bask. I was not prepared to see a typically tropical pelagic fish that usually lives 600-2000 feet below sea level on a day paddle! The sunfish was about four or five feet in diameter, a bit smaller than an average adult male, but it probably weighed more than my fully loaded expedition boat.
It was lazily flopping its top fin around after I struck it (not that it seemed to mind getting clipped by a kayak). It’s thought that the sunfish’s basking behavior is to warm itself after feeding in the depths (they mainly eat jellyfish), but they’ve also been observed to float near kelp to be cleaned of parasites by wrasses. Even more intriguing, seabirds have been seen to peck parasites off sunfish, and it’s theorized that fin flapping is to attract gulls to engage in this activity.
With our white hulls and shallow draft, did this mola mola think that we were birds? Did the fish even care we were there? Regardless of the reason, the sunfish let us watch it for three to five minutes before righting itself and sinking slowly out of sight. It was a magical, bizarre chance encounter with what I consider one of the strangest fish in the world.