In October 2015 Miguel Pereira was diving with some companions in the waters not far from Santa Maria Island, Portugal. The underwater explorer was armed with little more than his diving kit, an adventurous spirit and a GoPro camera. Yet this last item, especially, came in handy when, seemingly out of nowhere, Pereira came face-to-face with a fish large enough to swallow him or one of his companions in a single bite.
Photographer Pereira uploaded the resulting footage of the incredible creature to YouTube on October 11, 2015. The sequence starts like any other diving clip, with the sounds of heavy breathing and the sight of small swimming fish. But then, slowly, a huge shadow approaches through the water.
It is an ocean sunfish. As is common with this type of fish, it absolutely dwarfs all of the divers present. What is obvious, however, is that the sunfish means them no harm, and the divers crowd in to get their own pictures of this underwater wonder.
And those pictures couldn’t have been taken under better conditions, either. Indeed, the water appears clear and undisturbed, while the sunfish itself doesn’t seem to mind the attention.
Pereira wrote under his YouTube video, “When diving with a GoPro I saw the giant sunfish almost at surface level and practically static. The sunfish seemed not to be bothered by our presence at all and followed us for 15 minutes.”
He further elaborated by saying that the encounter more than made up for some previous misfortune. As he wrote, “A few days before, my camera was damaged when the underwater housing flooded. The bad luck was compensated [by seeing the sunfish].”
Otherwise known as the common “mola,” the ocean sunfish is the biggest and weightiest “bony fish” on the planet. A bony fish, incidentally, is a fish with bones and not cartilage for a frame.
Unsurprisingly, given this huge example, the sunfish can stretch to as much as 14 feet high and ten feet wide – and weigh in at just shy of 5,000 pounds. Interestingly, the word “mola” translates from Latin as a description of the fish’s roundness.
Indeed, National Geographic has described the ocean sunfish as “resembling a big floating blob.” And that certainly rings true for the plump, docile creature that greeted Pereira and his diving buddies.
If the divers were jellyfish, though, it may have been a different story, as sunfish consume the tentacled creatures as well as smaller fish and large helpings of zooplankton and algae. Their food consumption is perhaps helped by the fact that they can’t properly shut their mouths, which hence remain constantly open.
At first glance, however, it wouldn’t have been unusual for the divers to mistake the fish for a much bigger, and much more dangerous, shark. In fact, the sunfish’s large dorsal fin frequently causes it to be misidentified as a shark.
Sharks, though, can actually prey on the sunfish. Certainly, the sunfish’s sheer size hampers its ability to swim, which means that sharks, orcas and even sea lions can attack them. Somewhat cruelly, sea lions have been known to rip off a sunfish’s appendages before leaving it to die.
Furthermore, pollution is a danger to this kind of fish. It seems that some of them die after eating plastic bags, which can resemble their meal of choice, the jellyfish.
Humans, too, are known to hunt sunfish, although not always on purpose. Indeed, as the sunfish is prone to a spot of drifting, it can simply get snagged in people’s large nets.
But this bizarre fish is, in some parts of the Eastern world, thought of as a delicacy. Its flesh, however, has to be prepared with consideration, just in case it contains toxins hazardous for humans.
In fact, a sunfish’s skin may be prone to a countless number of parasites. Yet, interestingly, in the water these fish have a clever way of removing such unwanted organisms – by getting other fish and even birds to eat them right off their flesh.
Amazingly, they can also jump out of the sea to rid themselves of parasites. In 2005 a sunfish off the coast of Wales, U.K. hopped on board a passing boat and knocked a small boy into the water. Fortunately, the lad was unharmed.
Interestingly, sunfish apparently get their name from their almost sunbathing-like conduct: they will sometimes lie flat on the surface of the water – where much of their body is exposed to the sun – to warm themselves up, usually after visiting lower and icier depths.
This habit can, however, be quite a problem for some boaters. Certainly, the massive bulk of a sunfish can make it a significant obstacle to sea vehicles traveling at fast speeds.
It is rare, though, for the general public to catch a glimpse of the sunfish, which is what makes this filmed encounter so special. We can only imagine what an experience it must have been to see a sunfish of this size in the wild.