Sunfish, also known as Mola mola, are the most peculiar looking fish species found in the waters around Cape Town. These giants reach up to 3 metres in length and weigh about 2 tons – making them the heaviest bony fish in the world.
Most fish look aerodynamically designed for their watery habitat, but not the sunfish. It is a cumbersome-looking, oval-shaped creature with a flattened body and a head almost one third the length of its body. It is often as long as it is tall and instead of scales it has tough, leathery skin about 15cm thick.
These extraordinary fish make use of a rudder instead of a tail, because they prefer to drift with currents rather than exert themselves by swimming too far. However, its paddle-like fins flap synchronously and can give the sunfish a surprising turn of speed.
Sunfish live mainly on a diet of jellyfish and they need an awful lot to maintain their great weight. They sometimes forage at the surface, which is when Cape yachties notice them in the waters of False Bay or along the Atlantic coast. At first one might think it is a shark, but it soon becomes obvious that this wobbly-looking fin sticking out of the water at an angle can be nothing else but a sunfish. Experts think their tendency to lean over may be to warm their bodies, hence their common name of Sunfish.
Female sunfish are extremely fertile and produce more eggs than any other known vertebrate; about 300 million eggs. You would not recognise a baby sunfish if you saw it as it doesn’t resemble the adult at all. It looks more like a miniature Pufferfish, spines and all. As it grows, the body flattens and the spines and tail disappear. It then becomes less like its Pufferfish cousin and more like nothing else at all, which is why it was given its own genus; Mola.
It gets called a few other names around the world too; it’s known as Moonfish by the French (Poison lune) and Germans (Mondfisch), Cut-off fish (Visaya) in the Philippines and Toppled car fish in Taiwan. The best way to see a Sunfish is to go boating in the waters of Cape Town.