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A close encounter with a rare fish in Alert Bay

A whale scientist was surprised this week when a giant tropical fish showed up just a few metres from his waterfront home in Alert Bay.

As a whale scientist, Jared Towers is used to getting up close and personal with cetaceans on the coast of British Columbia and around the globe.

But he was surprised this week when a giant sub-tropical fish from half a world away showed up just a few metres from his waterfront home in Alert Bay.

The massive mola sunfish — two metres wide and three metres across, and a third of a metre thick — was basking and swimming in the calm bay just a stone’s throw from the front of his house.

“I thought it might a sea lion, so I got out my binoculars … wait, is it a mola?” said Towers, who ran into his house for his dry suit and waded in for a closer look.

Towers spent several “surreal” minutes with the gentle giant in less than a metre of water as the mola circled, before stopping and swimming right up to him.

The sunfish made eye contact with Towers, showing no sign of fear. Towers says he sensed the fish was just as interested in him as he was in the fish.

“It had these big beautiful eyes and it was looking me over up and down,” said Towers. “I’m used to having large mammals watching and having this inquisitiveness, but I never expected this out of a fish processing information about me.”

Towers, who stands 6 foot 7, wondered if it had something to do with their similar size, or was just curiosity.

The Mola mola, also called ocean sunfish, are the heaviest known bony fish in the world. Mola is Latin for millstone, and their shape and size is similar, though they are also known to be fast and elusive as they flip from their sides to a vertical position and propel themselves.

Towers estimated this one to be about 180 kilograms.

Sunfish range from 100 to 1,000 kilograms, but can get much larger. The biggest on record, caught in 1996 in Australia, was nearly 2,300 kilograms.

Towers’ visiting mola turned out to be something quite rare — a new species of the Mola genus called Mola tecta (hidden) or the Hoodwinker sunfish.

It was only documented in 2017 as a species by Danish scientist Mariaane Nyegaard after being misidentified as a Mola mola for about 125 years. The name Hoodwinker was assigned based on the fact the different species was hiding in plain sight and had fooled scientists for more than a century.

Ocean sunfish usually live in the warmer waters of the southern hemisphere off New Zealand and Australia and across to Chile and South Africa, so what brought this Mola tecta to the chilly waters off Alert Bay? Likely currents, said Towers.

The waters off the north Island are some of the coldest in coastal British Columbia, he said, but 20 nautical miles off the B.C. coast runs the California current, which can bring subtropical fish north.

Mola mola sightings aren’t new to the coast of B.C. or Alaska, says Jackie Hildering, a researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society, based in Port McNeill.

Hildering, who identified the sunfish as a Hoodwinker for Towers, said there have been “hundreds” of cases of sunfish sightings by fisherman and boaters along the North American coast, including B.C., going back to the 1950s.

While on research boats offshore, she’s witnessed several of the big fish following “a yellow brick road of jellyfish” — a main food source. “They actually breech,” she said.

When they bask on the surface, it’s not just for warmth. One of the most parasite-laden fish on the planet, the sunfish are presenting themselves “as a dinner plate for albatross to pick off the parasites.”

The Marine Education and Research Society is helping Nyegaard and her team of scientists to track the Mola mola and Hoodwinker along the coast, asking anyone who sees one to photograph the fish, mark its location and post it to the society’s website.

Hildering said the citizen science project is essential to understanding the behaviour of the fish. She believes the sunfish “are here to stay” and adapting, and will continue to be seen with more frequency.

She said they are likely following warm currents and possibly overall warming waters in the Pacific due to climate change, but more study and sightings are needed to be sure.

Closer to shore, sunfish have been spotted on the west side of the Island and near Port Hardy.

In the summer of 2019, scuba divers in Barkley Sound encountered a Mola mola during a dive. Earlier that year, a dead sunfish thought to be a Hoodwinker washed up in California, still far from its typical northern range.

The Hoodwinker sunfish have different features than the Mola mola, with tighter, less wrinkled skin, a rounder head shape, a narrower band of muscle on their back ends and smaller tail size.

How rare are they? “Well, that’s an emerging story,” said Towers. “I’m just lucky that one showed up and I was able to get up close and spend some time with it.”

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