Consider this your o-fish-al welcome to Monterey Bay, Hoodwinker Sunfish! You certainly had us fooled 😅
Divers in Monterey Bay have photographed two hoodwinker sunfish this year—the first confirmed sightings of this new species of sunfish in Central California!
A hoodwinker sunfish being cleaned by señorita wrasses off of Pacific Grove. Video: Joe Platko
Known to science as Mola tecta, the hoodwinker sunfish was officially described in 2017 by Dr. Marianne Nyegaard at Australia’s Murdoch University.
The word “tecta” is Latin for hidden—a perfect moniker for a hoodwinker. Mola tecta were thought to live mainly in the cold waters around Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Southern Chile.
But then, earlier this year, a massive hoodwinker sunfish washed up in Santa Barbara!
This sighting of Mola tecta was tantalizing for sunfish researchers: Are hoodwinkers new arrivals to the area, carried by Chile’s cool Humboldt current and somehow punching their way through the equator and into our temperate waters due to some climatic abnormality? Or have hoodwinkers been around these parts for some time, hiding in plain sight until Marianne’s discovery gave attentive observers the right clues to look for? Maybe a little bit of both? Something else entirely?
Mola mola, known as the common sunfish, in the Open Sea display at the Aquarium
Mola tecta found in Monterey Bay just offshore of Pacific Grove. This was the first confirmed sighting of a Mola tecta in Monterey Bay. Photo: Jr Sosky
Key characteristics of Mola tecta for identification. Photo: Jr Sosky/Marianne Nyegaard
A blessing in disguise
Whatever the case, there are now at least two more Mola tecta confirmed here in California, and the first ever identified in Monterey Bay.
In early August, a merry band of underwater photographers came across a large ocean sunfish being cleaned by señorita wrasses at Eric’s Pinnacle, a rocky outcrop off Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove.
We shared an image on the Aquarium’s social media feeds by photographer Joe Platko under the guise of a “Mola mola Monday Motivoceanal Moment!”
Our (erroneous) post on Twitter. More social media copy mistakes that lead to discoveries of new sunfish species in our backyard, please!
Mola mola is no stranger to the Monterey Bay—we see youngsters and heavyweights throughout the year just offshore of the Aquarium, and we’ve frequently had them on display in the Open Sea.
(You may know Mola mola better from the expletive-ridden video of a Boston fisherman coming across a sea monster in this viral video //youtu.be/r0IQCLQDfKw , or perhaps you’ve read the decidedly contrarian hate-click account of how “useless” sunfish are. )
Weighing nearly 5,000 pounds and spanning over 11 feet from tip to tip, Mola mola is one of the heaviest bony fishes in the sea (its Western Pacific cousin, the bumphead sunfish Mola alexandrini is just a touch heavier in the record books.)
Something fishy about that fishy…
Content with our content, we looked to see what you all thought of this magical “Mola mola”—and that’s when things got exciting!
A comment right here on Tumblr by Drop Science mentioned that this fish looked more Mola tecta than Mola mola. The two are remarkably similar in appearance, but there are a few tells. Most noticeably, a Mola tecta caudal fin is is divided by a smooth band projecting backwards to the fin’s edge.
Intrigued, we forwarded more images from Joe Platko and his dive buddy Jr Sosky to Senior Aquarist and resident mola expert Michael Howard.
Michael has been instrumental in our ocean sunfish program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium over several decades, pioneering training methods, specialized diets and tracking programs for these megafish. The Aquarium is the only one to successfully display Mola mola in North America.
Growing from just a few dozen pounds to several hundred, our resident sunfishes are released back to the wild. Once back in the bay, Michael’s satellite tags have revealed that Mola mola may migrate very far up and down the coast, and spend considerable time diving into the deep sea to feed on a varied diet of jellies, squid, crabs and other fare.
After reviewing the images, Michael thought there was certainly the chance that a hoodwinker had been found. He got us in touch with Marianne Nyegaard herself, and she confirmed that these were indeed the first images of a live Mola tecta in Monterey Bay!
Then, just three weeks later, diver Wei Wei Gao happened upon another Mola tecta off of Cannery Row!!
A hoodwinker sunfish filmed off Cannery Row. Video: Wei Wei Gao
A tecta-nic shift in our sunfish understanding!
In email exchanges that used up both of our yearly supplies of exclamation points, Dr. Marianne remarked that these sightings show just how little we know about one of the ocean’s most iconic fishes.
Michael is now diving into our records to see if there’s a chance we have had a Mola tecta hidden in our studies. And as for us, we’re buzzing with excitement at the discovery of this neighbor in our backyard, pleasantly deceived by a hoodwinker sunfish, and awestruck by the limitless wonder and mystery of our beloved Monterey Bay.
The first-ever confirmed Mola tecta in Monterey Bay being cleaned by señorita wrasses. Welcome to the neighborhoodwinker! Video: Joe Platko.