Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rare ocean sunfish drifts through area eating its weight in jellyfish

Marine biologist Tierney Thys asks us to step into the water
to visit the world of the Mola mola, or giant ocean sunfish

From TCPalm

As a youngster growing up in Miami, Ed Rice said his grandfather would share tales of his life as yacht captain, including one Rice says he will never forget — that of seeing an odd-looking ocean sunfish for the first time.

Sunfish look like a huge swimming fish head, as if a predator took its body behind the dorsal fin. But that’s the body these gentle giants are born with and sunfish spend their lives drifting slowly in the ocean’s currents feeding primarily on jellyfish.

Rice, of Palm City, got a first-hand look at a sunfish himself last Friday while returning to the St. Lucie Inlet after a offshore fishing trip aboard his boat, Scooter 2, with his son Daniel and friend Steven Trull.

“I guess I saw its fin break the surface of the water,” Rice said of the commotion in the water due east of the House of Refuge. “We made our way closer and could clearly see this odd fish as it swam next to the boat.”

Rice, 55, said he went online to research the sunfish, which revealed the estimated 4-foot across, 400-pounder he had witnessed was small. According to the website Oceansunfish.org, the largest sunfish ever recorded was 10 feet from nose to tail, 14 feet from tip of dorsal to tip of anal fin and weighed 4,927 pounds.

It takes a lot of jellyfish to reach that size, said Mark Perry, director of Florida Oceanographic Society on Hutchinson Island in Stuart.

“They’re very rare around here, but once in a while we’ll hear of one seen by a fisherman,” Perry said. “They’re native to temperate and tropical seas. Sometimes they can be seen swimming near the surface as they eat jellyfish or sun themselves.”

For Rice, it was an encounter he won’t soon forget.

“I had never seen one in some 40 years of fishing in South Florida,” Rice said. “Now my son has seen one, too, and one day he can share that with his kids.”

The recent influx of several species of jellyfish in Treasure Coast ocean waters has produced a number of stings for beachgoers. Offshore anglers working waters south of Fort Pierce have reported seeing millions of jellyfish out 4 to 5 miles from shore.

The dense population of jellyfish has also produced numerous turtle sightings along the coast, as turtles are also known to prefer jellyfish as a favorite food.

  • Slow-moving, drifts in oceans currents
  • Can grow to more than 4,000 pounds, but most sightings report a diameter of about 6 feet
  • Eats jellyfish, Portuguese man-of-war, squids, sponges and other bottom dwellers
  • Close relative of trigger fish, porcupine fish and puffer fish
  • Is the world’s largest bony fish
  • Are preyed upon by sea lions and orcas

Researchers with Oceansunfish.org request that when boaters encounter a mola mola to please report it online at www.oceansunfish.org/sightings

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