Home » Travel » I’ll Dive With Sharks — But Not With This Freak of Nature

I’ll Dive With Sharks — But Not With This Freak of Nature

Last Updated on January 26, 2021

A sunfish, or mola mola
The sunfish, otherwise known as the freak of the deep (Credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Yeah, I’ve gone overboard (pun intended) on the whole shark thang, but I’ve recently gone eyeball to eyeball with an even freakier ocean denizen. Seriously, this abnormality has given me nightmares in recent weeks.

After living in Cali nearly 10 years (well past my personal deadline), I finally made the trek to the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. At last count, I’ve been to more than 10 aquariums around the globe (including my all-time fave, the Ring of Fire Aquarium in Osaka, which had a whale shark when I visited), and Monterey promised to deliver more splash than any I’d previously visited. Unfortunately, my visit came after the release of the aquarium’s most recently captive great white, but I was still lured by the promise of a state-of-the-art institution that refiltered saltwater from the neighboring bay.

Because I got a late start out of Marin County, I had about an hour to view all the exhibits, so I made sure to devote the bulk of my time to the Outer Bay, which boasts a million gallons of free-floating marine amusement behind 13 inches of acrylic window space. Sure, the hammerheads and turtles were mesmerizing, but it was the ocean sunfish — the first I’d ever viewed in real life* — that startled me to the point of transfixion.

These creatures never should have made it this far through evolution. Their poorly designed, flattened bodies are so hydrodynamically inept that they seem to drift helplessly with the current more so than any oceanic invertebrate (See: jellies). As young’uns, they appear normal enough, with the requisite fins and gills in all the right places, but once they get bigger, Mola mola takes on a grotesque, exaggerated form that even Dali would have scoffed at as being unrealistic. Its tail takes on cauliflower characteristics, to the point of serving little purpose. Its “facial” features seem almost amorphous, with only a small orifice for a mouth. And its dorsal and anal fins seem ineffective when the current assumes strengths stronger than that of a bath tap.

A sunfish next to a scuba diver in the Galapagos
Size comparison: a scuba diver next to a sunfish in the Galapagos (Credit: Edgard Dias Magalhães [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
I lingered at the Outer Bay exhibit longer than usual solely because of the two ocean sunfish specimens (six and ten feet tall, by the docent’s estimates; Wikipedia has a good shot of their freakish size). Through the blue-gray gloom, one made its way towards the window at an awkward angle, as if emulating some inanimate piece of flotsam, until it was only feet away. Its eye looked cartoonish, as if it had been dreamed up by some freebaser in the basement of Henson Creature Studios, a sliced ping-pong ball granted the wish of orbital movement. It was ghastly, ghostly, too much for me to handle, and I backed away into the crowd until I was safely behind the docent and a marauding band of Japanese tourists.

The hammerheads continued to circle the tank. My pals the sea turtles flitted by and high-fived me with their flippers after each circuit. The 300-pound tuna — confined to below-average temperatures due to their need to breed at NASCAR speeds when the mercury rises to the mid-70s — lapped the tank as if making for the next Guinness record. But they all sped by in comparison to the sunfish, who, like some gelatinous monster from a ’50s horror flick, glided amiably as if they had all the time in the world. If the meek shall indeed inherit the Earth, then the sunfish is going to be signing your timesheets come the next stock plunge. Stick me in a tank with carnivorous sharks any day. I’m certain these freakazoids would gum you to death, if given the chance.

Oh, and if you get the chance when in Monterey, stop by For Garlic Lovers in the nearby arcade. Decadent halitosis-inducing edibles await.

(* I’ve since remembered that I saw a sunfish at the Coney Island Aquarium when I was about seven years old and was so freaked out that I wouldn’t go further into the exhibit and instead waited outside in the cold. Yes, they are the stuff nightmares are made of.)


  1. Ohmygawd! I nearly spewed my coffee laughing. Thanks for giving a great start to my morning.

    I’m a staffer at the aquarium, and I’m sure some of my colleagues will have a SLIGHTLY different take. But I say: Great stuff.

    For other truly weird-looking sea creatures, step into the auditorium sometime during the Mysteries of the Deep program and ask the presenter to share a few video clips of deep sea oddities.

  2. Thanks for writing! I totally forgot to write about the deep sea freaks lurking out there. I’d meant to allude to them, but spaced.

    Great aquarium! I wish I’d had more time to roam. I’ll try to return this summer after the otter exhibit opens.

  3. I’m one of his colleagues and as Aquaken predicted,I do have a different take on the disparaging mola comments in your otherwise vastly entertaining description. As a mola feeder at the aquarium I’m shocked and appalled that somehow you did not grok the benign and gentle essence of our beloved molas.

    When we first get molas, they’re cute-as-a-button 10-pounders. Although shy, they’re inquisitive and quickly learn to come to a target for food. Soon they’re eating out of your hand (literally). As they morph into mega-molas, they remain gentle and curious, patiently following the divers that clean the exhibit, just watching the underwater activity. It’s true, they do become a bit ponderous at the hefty size, but hey, that’s just more mola to love. Please seek mola enlightenment and check them out again when you return….

  4. I’m not saying I don’t like the molas. I’m just saying they’re fascinatingly bizarre. They don’t look well thought-out by Mother Nature. In fact, I bet if you gave a blind, inept toddler some clay and described what a regular fish looked like, the kid would create something very similar looking to a mola. That doesn’t make the mola any less endearing, but it does make you wonder how it’s lasted for so many eons. They’re so ugly, I don’t know how they can stand to mate with each other. How good is their eyesight?

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