Sunday, November 29 , 2015, 6:48 am | Fair 43º

Captain’s Log: My Vote for the Craziest-Looking Critter at the Surface of the Sea

Sunfish, aka mola mola, have a large, flat round body with small fins.
Sunfish, aka mola mola, have a large, flat round body with small fins.  (Bill Hopper photo)

By Capt. David Bacon, Noozhawk Columnist |

The depths of the sea hold life forms that are truly awesome, truly weird and truly deadly. We have much to learn about the critters of the deep sea. The surface of the sea has its share of strange creatures, too.

As a sea captain, I’ve marveled many times at critters I wasn’t familiar with, and in some cases, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to become overly familiar with them.

I recall reaching over the side of the boat to pick up a foot-long stick floating at the surface. It looked like a stick and pretty much felt like a wet stick. But as I held it in my hand and looked at it, the critter began writhing and trying to get out of my grasp. I was plenty willing to help it out by tossing it back in the water. After all, some sea critters teach painful lessons — a sculpin, for example.

My vote for the craziest critter at the sea surface is the sunfish (aka mola mola). It has a weird face for a fish, a large, flat round body with small fins that look to be overworked when the critter needs to move quickly. It doesn’t usually have much reason to move quickly since much of its diet consists of jellyfish, which aren’t exactly known for bursts of blinding speed.

The tail of a sunfish isn’t much help in the speed department, considering that it pretty much doesn’t have a tail. It kinda looks like it lost its tail in an accident. It sure could use a tail at times, like when it wants to jump up out of the water to take a look-see around.

Watching a sunfish jump is enough to make a person laugh and feel sorry for the critter, all at the same time. The jumping act is just about the last thing this critter was bioengineered to do. That explains why it doesn’t get much air and it has a propensity for flopping back into the water in a manner that looks as painful as a person doing a belly-flop from a diving board.

I was really feeling sorry for them one day when cruising off the west end of Santa Cruz Island. There were about 30 juvenile (smaller than a dinner plate) sunfish all floating in an area and not looking quite right. Closer inspection showed that they were all dead, and I watched the reason. A pack of sea lions had found the school and was biting just the bellies out of the sunfish, then moving on to the next one to repeat the process.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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