#SundayFishSketch Ocean Sunfish

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This #SundayFishSketch comes from Ichthyologist, Rene Martin. Visit her shop on InPrint to see more of her artwork or to order prints!

Meet the Ocean Sunfish

Mola mola


The Ocean Sunfish (also known as the Common Mola) is the heaviest of the bony fish, typically weighing in between 500 and 2,200 pounds. On the high end, some individuals have been recorded at nearly 5000 pounds and 10 feet in length. They are native to temperate and tropical waters around the world, where they swim around like a floating head with fins maintaining a constant expression of disbelief like they’re thinking “I can’t believe that fish said that?!” or the David After the Dentist kid.


The species is perhaps most well known for their impossible appearance and a hilarious (though not entirely correct) viral internet rant about the uselessness of the species. I personally think they look sort of like the Face of Bo from Doctor Who.

Sunfish were previously thought to eat nothing but varying types of jellyfish, which because they are nutritionally lacking, is basically still nothing. In reality, they consume large amounts of small fish, crustaceans, larval fish, squid, zooplankton, algae, and of course, jellies. They have to eat vast quantities in order to maintain their enormous size—not to mention the fact that they produce more eggs than any other known vertebrate, totaling at nearly 300 million at a time. Of course, a vast majority of those eggs don’t survive.

Predators of the Sunfish are few, though orcas, sharks, and sea lions may fancy the occasional Mola meal—though to call it a meal for sea lions feels misleading. It’s more like a game of “let’s take some bites and rip off the fins and leave the giant floating head to sink to the ocean floor.” Some Asian countries consider the Sunfish a delicacy, placing great pressure on the Mola population. Human interaction with this gentle giant has resulted in the species placement on the IUCN Red List of Species as Vulnerable due to  the sunfish being an all too frequent find in by-catch of commercial fishing operations. Similar to sea turtles, plastic bags from human pollution resemble jellyfish and pose a great threat to the Mola if ingested.

The Ocean Sunfish reaches an average length of nearly 6 feet and a height of 8 and a half feet, though much larger individuals are not uncommon. Their coloration ranges between grey, white, and light brown. When threatened, they are able to change their skin to a noticeably darker shade to reduce their visibility. Rather than the typical scales, the Ocean Sunfish has a 2 and half inch, mucous covered, sandpaper-textured, leathery skin—much like a shark. It’s skin can be home of up to 40 different parasites which it rids of by sunbathing (the inspiration of its name) and allowing birds to clean them off or by swimming to areas such as kelp forests where other smaller fish can help do some cosmetic work. Sometimes, they will breach the surface at full speed reaching 10 feet in the air before smacking back into the surface in an effort to knock off some of these parasites.

If you’re looking at the fish and you’re thinking “how does this thing swim?”, the answer is “hardly”. The Mola cruises at around 2 mph keeping itself stable with its two paddle like fins and wight distribution. Since they lack a swim bladder, that’s about all they’re capable of. Popular belief among those who even know what this fish is is that they spend a bulk of their time drifting and sun bathing, but the truth is that the Mola must spend a lot of its time hunting between the surface and depths of nearly 600 feet to meet the needs of their insatiable diet.

Its unknown how long these spectacular creatures live, though ages of around 10 years have been reached in captivity. Estimates place their lifespan at nearly 20 years of age.

On occasion, the Mola may be mistaken as a shark when its fins breach the waters surface. You can tell them a part simply by observing the movement. Sharks cruise through the water, moving their tail side to side while the Ocean Sunfish must move its fins in order to move.



Liu, J., Zapfe, G., Shao, K.-T., Leis, J.L., Matsuura, K., Hardy, G., Liu, M., Robertson, R. & Tyler, J. 2015. Mola mola (errata version published in 2016). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T190422A97667070. Downloaded on 25 June 2018.

One response to “#SundayFishSketch Ocean Sunfish”

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