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September 2, 2013

Sunfish making a splash along local beaches this summer

There are few things in life that can cause a more gut-wrenching fear than spotting a large, black fin emerging from the ocean nearby.

It’s happened a few times this summer on Plum Island, off Gloucester’s Wingaersheek Beach, off Rockport and elsewhere along our coast.

But more than likely, it isn’t a hungry shark looking to strike fear into the hearts of beachgoers. Instead it’s one of nature’s most unusual fish species, one that has to be seen to be believed.

It’s the mola mola, also known as the Ocean Sunfish, a bizarre-looking fish that can grow to be 2,000 pounds or more. According to some accounts, the waters off local beaches in Newburyport and Plum Island, especially, are seeing a larger influx of them this summer — or at the very least, a handful are being seen often.

Sightings have been going on all summer along Plum Island, as well as Seabrook Beach, as recently as last week. Sightings have also been made in the mouth of the Merrimack River, in one case near the Plum Island Basin. And the sight of a sunfish fin spurred officials to clear swimmers out of the water at Wingaersheek, until authorities were able to confirm the finned visitor was, in fact, a sunfish.

“The guys (on the charter boats) have seen a lot of them this year,” said George Charos, owner of the Captain’s Lady party boats on Plum Island. “We had a lot of them a few years ago, and now this year there seems to be more of them again. I’m not sure why they are coming back.”

Tony LaCasse, spokesman for New England Aquarium, said a group of aquarium scientists recently encountered an unusually large number of mola mola in the waters north of Cape Ann.

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