When I was in third grade, my teacher told us that we should never begin a paper with the phrase “This essay is.” Higher yet up the list of rhetorical sins was the phrase “In this essay I will” and, standing at its zenith, the phrase “I am writing this essay because.”
I hope Mrs. Hansen will forgive me, even as I understand her point (though all the hard science classes—and several of the social science ones—I’ve taken in the meantime would beg to differ). I am writing this piece because the ocean sunfish is pretty rad, and you need to know about it.
You may already be aware of the elephantine glory that is the ocean sunfish—or, to give it its official title, the mola mola—as it is a well-documented fact that the ocean sunfish is (and this is a technical term) really cool. It is the largest—or heaviest, if you’re being specific, or one of the heaviest, if you’re hedging—bony fish (i.e. not a shark or manta ray) in the world. The ocean sunfish is also a standout among this planet’s many cool swimmies because it looks like a massive dork, as if the surprised Pikachu meme was given mass and sentience.
And, depending on who you ask, it is a massive dork. While not an inelegant specimen, it is a lumberous one. This graceful gracelessness is especially impressive due to the difficulty of obtaining such lumberousness underwater. Apparently, one of the reasons it is so difficult to keep mola mola in aquariums is because their lack of maneuverability can lead to collisions with tank walls. The only aquarium in the United States to house ocean sunfish (whose diet, in case you were curious, mainly consists of jellyfish) has also instituted a Pavlovesque color coding system to tell the mola when it’s time to eat, or else its tankmates will snipe its food before it has the time to meander over.
The pop-culturally-aware reader may assume that my current fascination with the ocean sunfish (which, did you know, will rise up to the ocean’s surface to sun itself, lying horizontally in gentle waves like winged dinner plate) is caused by its seasonal appearance in the world’s #1 quarantainment release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That would be a good but inaccurate guess; the truth is that my renewed sunfish interest comes from the highlight reel of the EV Nautilus’ 2016 expedition off the coast of California. Let me explain.
The Exploration Vessel Nautilus, owned by the Oceanic Exploration Trust (founded by Robert Ballard of Titanic-discovery fame), charts an exploratory course for a few months each year and—herein lies the brilliance—streams their discoveries with live commentary from onboard biologists, geologists, and archaeologists as well as some phone-a-friend onshore experts. Some truly dedicated videographers then take that footage and package the best twenty or so minutes into a YouTube-worthy compilation reel.
These compilations are by far the most valuable and enlightening of my quarantine-induced YouTube bottom trawling, including such edifying moments as four scientists mocking a stubby squid, adorably shy flapjack octopuses, and a world-renowned marine archeologist singing the opening bars of “My Heart Will Go On” to the wreck of the U.S.S. Independance. It is essentially a let’s play exploring the final terrestrial frontier (or, for those of you here for the early bird special, a marine-biology-themed episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000).
Anyway, in 2016, while sonar mapping the uncharted regions of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, a member of the Nautilus’ scientific team notices something hovering into view at the top right of the deep sea camera. The scene, at first, is more akin to Jaws than Blue Planet—a silent silhouette from out of the hazy depths, a note from a sharp-eyed scientist (“something big is swimming at us”)—but once realization hits, so does exuberant pandemonium. You have not heard happiness until you have heard marine scientists unexpectedly encounter a mola mola. A quick half-minute later the ocean sunfish (which, by the way, is one of the youngest fish, evolutionarily speaking, in the ocean) is gone, leaving not even a shadow behind to mark its presence.
There is probably some profundity to be found here about joy and exploration and one’s calling, but the truth is that the mola mola is a giant, pretty cool, kinda dumb-looking fish. And in 2016, a bunch of scientists on a boat got really geeked about that fact. And maybe I’m just a pleb, but that’s something worth knowing about.