GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 2, 2013

Sunfish making a splash along local beaches this summer

From Staff Reports
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — 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.

At Kay’s Surfland, a well-known Plum Island tackle shop, there have been some reports of mola molas, but “nothing too spectacular,” said owner Kay Moulton. One fisherman reported seeing an unusually large mola mola offshore.

The mola mola is shaped like a large, flat disk, five feet or more in diameter. It has a fairly small mouth for its size, and huge eyes. It’s tail is stunted and irregularly shaped. But it also has two long black, shark-like fins, one on its back and one on its belly, each 2 feet or more in length. It’s those fins that can cause the panic for beachgoers.

They feed primarily on jellyfish and sometimes on crustaceans. They are known to swim to depths of 1,000 feet or more, moving through the water with their disk-shaped bodies perpendicular to the surface. But it’s their leisurely behavior on the surface that draws attention. They turn their bodies sideways and flop their fins, a behavior that is believed to help warm their bodies from the effects of deep dives.

“A lot of times, people mistake them for sharks,” said Charos, adding that they are remarkably docile fish and usually allow boats to come up next to them, where their odd appearance attracts attention.

“The guys have been pulling up close to them and showing them to people,” said Charos. “They are pretty gentle fish. They don’t run away. They kind of look like a blob.”