Blue whales may be the premier draw this summer for Southern California marine mammal enthusiasts, but an unusually high abundance of Mola molas is adding a different kind of "wow" factor.
While blue whales are the planet's largest mammals, Mola molas, or ocean sunfish, are among the planet's weirdest-looking sea creatures: oval-shaped with truncated bodies, large eyes, small mouths and two long, oar-shaped fins.
To quote Milton S. Love's gargantuan book, titled "Certainly More Than You Want to Know About The Fishes of the Pacific Coast," the Mola mola is "a pelagic fish that has lost all semblance of dignity."
But judging from the reactions of boaters, the docile sunfish also are quite lovable.
The accompanying image was captured this week by Frank Brennan, a Dana Wharf Whale Watching employee, who used a GoPro camera mounted on a pole and plunged beneath the surface.
Dana Wharf Capt. Corey Hall said the sunfish are curious and will often swim toward boats if a pole or even a hand is placed in the water.
The presence of Mola molas off Southern California is not unusual, but the number of sightings off San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties is extraordinarily high, perhaps explained by an abundance of sea jellies and unprecedented numbers of small, gelatinous creatures called Salps.
Mola molas can measure nearly 14 feet and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. They feed primarily on sea jellies and other soft prey. They're found in tropical and temperate seas around the world.
Said Dave Anderson of Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Safari in Dana Point: "We are seeing both young and full-grown mola's on nearly every trip, and sometimes seeing 20 or 30 animals in a single trip, though often these are young ones.
"The mola sightings seem to have been improving along with blue whale, fin whale and minke whale sightings, and this has been one of if not the best years for sighting them."
Mola molas are not commercially fished but are caught regularly as incidental bycatch in drift gill-nets. Though they appear to be sluggish at the surface, they're surprisingly swift and agile in deeper water.
Love, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara, writes that surface basking by Mola molas "may be a way to warm up after making deep dives into colder waters."
Among their natural predators are marlin, sharks, orcas and California sea lions.
-- Pete Thomas