Which marine species weighs a tonne on average and resembles a swimming pancake with handles? The Mola mola, or Ocean sunfish must be one of the strangest fishes you’ll ever see. It also happens that these piscatorial curiosities are occasionally sighted in South Australian waters and most recently in Spencer Gulf.
This article was prompted by recent correspondence with Marine Life Society of SA member, Chloe Williams. Chloe and some of her friends who work with Calypso Star Charters (who run tours to cage-dive with Great White Sharks) were discussing on Facebook some of their recent observations. My eyebrows raised when I saw sunfish mentioned, as my wife Emma is particularly enamored with these strange and elusive animals.
“We located the fish while steaming to Neptune Island from Port Lincoln at approx 09:40. I don’t have the exact lat and long but we were 5NM NNW of North Neptune Island in about 85m of water.”
I asked Andrew if there were jellyfish about, since they are a favored food of the animal.
“During the winter we don’t see many jelly fish… having said that we did see an unusually high number of jelly fish in March/April this year around the Neptunes.”
“In 12 years of wandering around the ocean between Wedge Island, Neptunes and west to Pearsons Island it is the first Sunfish that I have ever sighted. I would estimate it to have been 7-8 foot long although being overcast it was a little hard to tell. We did attempt to get some underwater footage, but by the time we got the Go Pro out the fish had descended out of sight.”
For those unfamiliar with the location, the Neptune Islands are located south-east of Port Lincoln, just beyond the mouth of Spencer Gulf. I had previously heard accounts from Tony Bramley of Whyalla Diving Services about sunfish seen in Upper Spencer Gulf, approximately 300 kilometres to the north. Unfortunately, specifics of these sightings (dates, times, images) were unable to be obtained, but I was able to find a video on Youtube of an ocean sunfish in shallow water, recorded close to Port Augusta (you can see the clip below). The video was shot by Aaron Morgan, who previously offered on-water tours of of the Upper Spencer Gulf region.
The Atlas of Living Australia reveals that all four described species of sunfish (from three genera) have been recorded in waters off South Australia.
Ocean sunfish (Mola mola)
Mola mola, the Ocean sunfish has been recorded numerous times along the continental shelf south of Kangaroo Island and southwest of Eyre Peninsula. More South Australian records exist for this species than for the other three.
Short sunfish (Mola ramsayi)
Two specimens of the smaller Short sunfish (Mola ramsayi) are in the South Australian Museum’s collection. One was collected by Mr A. White from Torrens Island on the 13th of November in 1982. The Museum’s records say that it was collected by Mr White of Rosewater via Peter Karellas of the Ozone Fish Cafe. The other was collected by John Verrier on the 27th of June, 1994 by a fishing boat. The animal was floating on surface and handed onto a water fire boat.
Another Mola was donated to the SA Museum in July of 1996, after being found in beach wash near Port Augusta.
Sharptail sunfish (Masturus lanceolatus)
The Sharptail sunfish (Masturus lanceolatus) has been recorded in Hog Bay, near the township of Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island. The first specimen for the state, it has since been divided into several pieces: a piece of skin, and ovary, pharyngeal teeth and a portion of tail. It was collected by C. J. M. Glover on July 31, 1965. In August of 2007, another specimen was found, beach washed at Robe in the state’s South East.
Slender sunfish (Ranzania laevis)
The remaining species, the Slender sunfish (Ranzania laevis) has been reported twice in South Australia. The first discovery was inferred from a cast, found at Netley. The animal was found on Aldinga Beach on the 15th of July, 1944. The specimen was identified as Ranzania laevis in 2009 by Ralph Foster at the SA Museum. The sighting was confirmed by articles printed in several South Australian newspapers at the time, one of which depicted the animal clearly in a photographic print. The other specimen was found dead on Aldinga Beach on July 23rd, 1969 by Mrs E. M. Bradley.
Additional historic sighting accounts
Naturally, there were more sightings waiting to be rediscovered in historic newspaper articles, and a search of Trove delivered. The distribution of these sightings spanned much more of the South Australian coast, with locations as far apart as Streaky Bay on the west coast of Eyre Peninsula to Port Macdonnell in the south east and Goolwa at the Murray Mouth in between.
Additional sightings from Upper Spencer Gulf emerged at Port Augusta and Whyalla, and a stranding event at Port Lincoln where the same animal beached on two consecutive days. There were at least four accounts from Port Augusta which were not recorded in the Atlas of Living Australia, the earliest being from 1868 (the town was only founded in 1852). While many years have often transpired between published accounts, they still stand as a reminder than even when circumstances seem truly remarkable, history has a wonderful knack for repeating itself.
My next step will be to upload these historic sighting accounts to the Atlas of Living Australia, so that they might prove useful to researchers, like those at Murdoch University who started the Sunfish Research Facebook page last year. Another key sunfish contact is the wonderfully passionate American scientist, Tierney Thys. Tierney and her team manage a website at OceanSunfish.org which collects and shows sightings from around the world. It also allows contributors to join an announcement email list for dedicated sunfish enthusiasts.