Help Unravel the Mystery of the Ocean Sunfish

Have you seen an ocean sunfish in the wild? You can help Dr. Tierney Thys ( and her colleagues by reporting your sighting with as much or as little detail as you can recall. If you are on the ocean frequently, please print these questions for your next trip. Your sightings can help science understand the behaviors and movements of these odd creatures. (Your contact info will not be shared with anyone) If you happen to have a picture documenting your sighting--this would be exceptionally helpful to include in an email.

Mola mola are the most commonly encountered sunfishes. Typically they are found sculling like a shark with their dorsal fin flapping out of the water or basking on the sea surface--often in association with a seagull. Molas will actually solicit a seagull’s help in removing external parasites. If however the cleaning gets too rough, the sunfish will simply spit water at its avian assistant and swim out of sight.

Off the California coast, sunfish are frequently found near floating rafts of dislodged kelp called kelp patties. Under these floating oases, sunfish solicit help from cleaner fishes like half-moon Medialuna and senoritas Oxyjulis. Sunfish can also breach, clearing the surface by up to 3 body lengths—presumably as another tactic to dislodge parasites.

While most sightings are at the surface, molas have been sighted in deeper waters with submersibles and remotely operated vehicles. A Mola mola was encountered by Sylvia Earle piloting the 1atm Deep Worker submersible at 500m (1640 ft) in the Dry Tortugas off Florida last summer. Just recently we received an ROV sighting of a Mola mola at 520m in the Gulf of Mexico. Using the Johnson Sea Link Submersible, Harbison and Janssen (1986) report encountering a Masturus lanceolatus at 670m (2200 ft) in the Bahamas.
We are currently in the process of assembling all sunfish submersible sightings and aim to publish these results before the end of the year. If you happen to know of a sunfish sighted by a submersible, please do write to us.

Your name Email

Date of sighting Time of day

Location (Lat/Lon or nearest landmarks) Number of sunfish

Sea conditions (calm, windy, sunny, dark, etc)

Species (click one):

Mola mola

Mola mola

Masturus lanceolatus

Ranzania laevis

Ranzania laevis

(Frasier-Brunner, 1951)

Water temp.
Behavior (swimming, laying on side, active, lethargic, etc.)

If basking, was the animal on its right or left side?

Parasites and/or distinguishing marks noted

Fishermen finding molas in their incidental catch are asked to provide measurements as able:

Length from mouth to tail (where the "tail" bends)
Height from upper fin tip to lower fin tip

Other comments



National Geographic

Research and Exploration

Microsoft Corporation

Sea Studios Foundation

Monterey Bay

Taiwan Fisheries
Research Institute

The Lindbergh Foundation

Smithsonian Visiting
Research Fellowship

University of South Florida,

Census of Marine Life

Pfleger Institute of
Marine Science (PIER)

Women’s International
Science Collaboration

Stephen Drogen

Arcadia Wildlife Preserve, Inc

email: © 2002 - 2006 Tierney Thys, PhD.     images © Mike Johnson/ All rights Reserved