Massive sunfish found in Mediterranean Sea brought momentarily onboard fishing vessel for scientific inspection


Marine biologist Enrique Ostale could not believe his eyes when he saw the enormous sunfish tangled in the nets of a tuna-fishing boat off the Mediterranean coast of Ceuta earlier this month.

The mammoth sunfish, a species classed as vulnerable and not eaten in Europe, was 3.2 metres long and 2.9 metres wide, Mr Ostale said in an interview on Thursday.

He had been called in to assess the find, a record for the area which, due to tides and sunfish migratory patterns, has no shortage of such encounters.

“We tried to put it on the 1,000kg scale but it was too heavy. It would’ve broken it,” he said.

Mr Ostale heads Seville University’s marine biology laboratory in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on the north coast of Africa.

“Based off its corpulence — and compared with other catches — it must’ve weighed around 2 tonnes.

Sunfish returns to dark depths

A group of marine scientists work in chest-deep water to free a large grey sunfish from a fishing net.
After being freed from the net the massive fish swam away into the ocean dark.(Supplied: University of Seville)

The fish was first isolated in an underwater chamber attached to the boat before being lifted aboard using a crane, where it stayed for a few minutes while Mr Ostale and his fellow biologists took measurements, photographs and DNA samples.

With dark grey skin, rounded grooves in its flanks and a large, prehistoric-looking head, this particular specimen was likely a Mola alexandrini, a sub-species of the mola sunfish genus, which sports a distinctively stubby, scalloped back fin.

“I was stunned. We’d read about such individuals … but never thought we’d actually touch one one day,” Mr Ostale said.

“But it was also stressful. You’re on a boat in the middle of the water, there’s a crane moving [a] huge weight, a live animal. We couldn’t waste a moment and had to avoid accidents.”

The fish was removed from the net and returned to the water smoothly, to the relief of the fishermen and scientists aboard, who watched as the creature vanished swiftly into the 700-metre depths of its home.

“When we arrived, the feeling was of astonishment. On one hand, we couldn’t believe our luck, because we have read books and articles about the dimensions that a sunfish could have, but we didn’t know we would be able to watch it and touch it ourselves,” Mr Ostale said.


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