The ocean sunfish is one of the great deep’s greatest oddities. Also known as the Mola mola, these hella hella big fish start life as the ichthyological equivalent of a singular puff of popcorn, and yet over an average lifespan of 23 years grow to be almost two meters (6.5 feet) wide. Their appearance can be so surprising to those not familiar with the beasts that police departments have had to put out a plea for residents to stop calling them with sightings.
In one of the more successful examples of DIY wildlife videography, crew member Andy from the Newport Whales group in California perfectly captured the moment a baby ocean sunfish breached the ocean’s surface. In what looks like the baby sunfish equivalent of the zoomies, the adorable little fish flaps its two fins at great speed, doing a delicate little twirl before leaping out of the water.
In the video, several seabirds can be seen floating nearby, seemingly disinterested in the joyful display. While scenes from Finding Nemo might have led you to believe that these gulls would be a threat to such a wee fish, ocean sunfish actually regularly visit seabirds for a unique kind of spa treatment.
Being like giant dinner plates for animals, sunfish have little defense against parasites, around 40 kinds of which are partial to digging into their skin. To get rid, all a sunfish needs do is flap to the surface in search of seabirds. As it lays on its side at the surface, the greedy gulls happily clear up even the most stubborn of parasites. Halfmoon fish, who are often found in kelp forests, are also good parasite removers, but none tops the seagull for scrupulousness.
If no birds or halfmoon fish can be found, the ocean sunfish has a trick up its flippers for trying to shake loose the parasites itself. Despite their slow and seemingly laborious movement, these fish can breach and launch themselves as high as 3 meters (10 feet) into the air. Of course, for a bonny baby sunfish such heights aren’t yet possible, but gosh darn it if it ain’t trying its hardest. You go, mini Mola mola.
The larval form of the giant bump-head sunfish, Mola alexandrini, was finally tracked down in 2020 to the delight of all who enjoy things that are small and squishy. Female sunfish hold the record of the highest potential fecundity of any vertebrate, with adults housing around 300 million ova. Given their enormous ovulatory output, scientists were perplexed as to why their eggs had never been found in the wild, and why sightings of their larvae were so few and far between.
The answer to the question, however, was delivered in the form of an incredibly tiny museum specimen that was just five millimeters (0.197 inches) wide. DNA analyses revealed the popcorn’s identity as the larva of M. alexandrini, which unlike its smooth (like an olive) parents resembled something between a cinnamon crunch and a snowflake. Finding such a tiny bebe would be akin to searching for a pinhead in Lake Baikal, but my, what a treat for the eyes it would be.