Known for its peculiar disk-shape and gentle demeanor, a large Mola mola ocean sunfish glides below the water’s surface, turning slightly sideways towards the sunlight. Above water, dozens of small translucent Velella velella float gracefully on the rolling waves. Their rigid sail-like appendages, in shades of blue, purple, and silver, catch the breeze, propelling them to destinations unknown.
Here off the coast of Newport Beach in Southern California, we can see the edge of two worlds—above and below the ocean’s surface—where these strange and majestic ocean creatures meet.
And then, in the murky distance, the Mola mola opens its small mouth and skims the air, sucking the “by-the-wind sailor” in for a meal. The video below provides an incredible close-up of the sunfish surfacing to eat:
These large ocean sunfish love snacking on velella. A few details from the Monterey Bay Aquarium:
“A mola hatches from a tiny egg but grows to weigh more than a pickup truck, increasing its weight 60 million times along the way… The heaviest bony fish, it grows to a maximum of about 10 feet (3 m) long and is often taller than it is long — up to 14 feet (4.3 m) from dorsal fin tip to anal fin tip…
“Inside a mola’s tiny mouth are two pairs of hard teeth plates shaped with a slightly curved ridge that look kind of like a bird’s beak. The mola eats mainly jellies and other gelatinous organisms, from big moon jellies to ctenophores, to tiny comb jellies.
“To break its dinner into manageable pieces, the mola doesn’t chew. It sucks the jellies in and out of its mouth until they’re reduced to gelatinous chunks.”
Unlike true jellyfish, velella are jelly-like invertebrates—hydroids made up of a colony of specialized polyps that work together to feed, float, and reproduce. At the mercy of the winds and ocean currents, their tiny stinging tentacles hang down in the water to catch plankton.
Luckily, those stingers aren’t strong enough to bother humans, so when they’re stranded on a beach, you can take a closer look. “Just be careful,” Heal the Bay warns, “not to touch your eyes after handling them.”
Watch these related videos next:
• A quiet swim with Mola mola ocean sunfish, young and old
• A massive Ocean Sunfish in the Galápagos
• The Portuguese Man-of-War Up Close
• There’s no such thing as a jellyfish
• The Blue Button Jellyfish (porpita porpita), not actually a jelly
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