Fish Facts: What Eats Giant Ocean Sunfish?

That huge fish you saw on the ocean's surface swimming sideways and missing a tail? That's a mola.

mola ocean sunfish bite
Mola, also known as ocean sunfish, are massive, weird-looking fish without a tail. What would take a bite out of the slow-mover? Rich Herrmann

Could anything that swims be an easier meal than the mola? Also known as ocean sunfish, the weird fish without a tail appears to be missing the back half of its body, as if cut off behind its fins. Many blue-water anglers have come upon these fish — which spend much of their lives finning at the surface — memorable not only for their comical appearance, but also their size. They’re reputedly the largest of all bony fishes, growing up to at least 6,000 pounds.

Without that part of the body most fish rely on to swim, molas make the best of what they have, moving their bodies through the water with their dorsal and anal fins. As to how well that works, let’s just say molas swim at a snail’s pace as they wander about all oceans, warm, temperate and tropical.

With 2 mph as their average speed, they must be fair game for predators, right? That’s true up to a point, particularly for juveniles and small adults. Though given their phenomenal growth rate — one captive mola reached nearly 900 pounds in a bit over a year — they don’t stay small for long. That growth is all the more impressive when you figure that their diet relies heavily on jellyfish.

What Eats Ocean Sunfish?

sea lion bites mola ocean sunfish
Predacious marine mammals may go after a mola’s internal organs. Sea lions have been observed biting ocean sunfish, not to eat them, but apparently just for sport. Rich Herrmann

Smaller molas do at times fall victim to some sharks, sea lions and seals, and killer whales. While the odds of such an attack are not great, this is by no means uncommon either. Predacious marine mammals may go after a mola’s internal organs. But sea lions have been observed to bite off the fins of an ocean sunfish, not to eat them but apparently just for sport.

Tiger and perhaps white sharks are known to take a chunk out of larger molas, but presumably not devour them. Once molas reach the size of true giants of the ocean — about the size of a large SUV — not much poses a danger other than parasites (and these fish host a great many). Even when molas are small enough to be of interest to a shark, odds are good it will move on after sampling a bite. As an article in the Oct. 2019 Environmental Biology of Fishes stated, “large sunfish may comprise low quality or undesired prey for tiger sharks.”

Given that tiger sharks are well known for swallowing just about anything, saying in effect a tiger shark would spit out a bite of mola mola speaks volumes. Some examples of items found inside tiger sharks include porcupine quills, license plates, fur coats, a drum (no, not the species of fish called drum, but an actual percussive instrument), a suit of armor and so much more.

Not All Fish Taste Good

And that brings me to the confessional booth, going back to my younger and (even) stupider days, when I did something very few people in the world have ever done (with good reason): I tried eating an ocean sunfish. Here’s how it went down.

I was fishing with a friend in his 17-foot open boat off the southern Oregon coast when we came upon a small mola moving slowly at the surface with casual flips of its fins. A brilliant thought struck me: Why don’t we take it back and cook it up for dinner? We were staying at a state campground and hadn’t caught much for the evening meal, and most importantly, I could prove my general belief that all fish are edible (granted, some are better than others). I asked my friend if he’d ever heard of anyone even trying ocean sunfish, and he admitted he hadn’t.

“See? How can people say you can’t eat ‘em if no one’s ever tried ‘em?” I demanded.

So out came the gaff and in came the feckless sunfish, about the size of a garbage can lid.

Cleaning it proved no small task but eventually I managed to cut out some flesh, which I recall had a greyish cast. But no matter: Meat is meat. When a layer of oil in the skillet over coals was plenty hot, I put in a few chunks of mola and let them cook about as long as I would any fish.

Excited, I dropped a sizzling piece of mola on my buddy’s paper plate and one on my own. After a minute for the fish to cool a bit, we both put a chunk in our mouth. Both us chewed — and chewed. My initial reaction was how tough was the meat of this fish, raised on jellyfish. My next reaction coincided with that of my friend when we looked at each other and simultaneously spat out our partly chewed bites, followed by groans of “Oh, shit!” and “My God, that’s awful!” I no longer maintain that all fish are edible.

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