Friday, September 13, 2013

Mola mola!

In July, I took an advanced sailing course through Women Under Sail.  Mid morning on our first day we were sailing east  in Casco Bay just off the tip of Bailey's Island, when Jane Parker, the First Mate, cried "A porpoise!  Oh!  It looks like it's in trouble!  What's wrong with it?"

A poor photo of Mr. mola

If you look carefully, you can see his little mouth!
What's wrong with it was it wasn't a porpoise at all.  It was a Mola mola, or ocean sunfish.

Now, I have a thing for Mola molas.  Even their name is awesome.  (Their name in German, Schwimmender kopf, swimming head, is even more awesome.)  So I had a little fit when I got up from the cockpit and realized what we were seeing.


(Jane Parker reenacted my reaction several times during the course, just to remind me how geeky I am.)

There it was, a Mola mola sunning itself along the surface of the Gulf of Maine.  Molas are gigantic -- the largest bony fishes known, reaching 5000 pounds and 10 feet long.  Their German name -- swimming head -- is appropriate, as they have no "tail", just a big body with large dorsal and ventral fins they use to propel themselves through the water.  For a long time molas were thought to feed exclusively on jellies (from looking at their stomach contents), but recent evidence suggests their diet may be more varied.  Molas are considered plankton -- they can't swim effectively against currents, so drift through the oceans.  

Bigelow and Shroeder, in their seminal work Fishes of the Gulf of Maine (written in 1948), had this to say about the mola"When these unlucky vagrants are sighted in our cool northern waters they have usually been chilled into partial insensibility. They float awash on the surface, feebly fanning with one or the other fin, the personification of helplessness." But it's likely that molas are more than occasional visitors in summer, and that their visits are due to more than chance.  Molas may come north in warm months to take advantage of the high concentrations of jellies, but head south with the onset of autumn.  Potter and Howell recently published this paper on satellite tagging of molas, and they found the molas they tagged in New England moved south for the winter, some all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.  They also found evidence that what we think of as "basking" -- lying on the surface of the water -- may not have anything to do with sunbathing.  Molas didn't bask more in cold water than warm.  That leaves us with the question of just what are they doing?  (Posing for a photo?)

No doubt, I'll be watching for my next encounter with Mola mola -- my favorite fish. Unfortunately, it was hard to get decent photos under the conditions.  Sailing along on a giant boat that's hard to maneuver isn't the way to take amazing photos of the sea.  We came about several times and got a good look, then went on our way (to Damariscove Island, a story for another day).  It was a real highlight of the trip and shows you never know what you're going to see out there.

So keep your eyes open.

Jane Parker, best First Mate ever.

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