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Mola mola: Meet the Gigantic Ocean Sunfish in Bali

Aktualisiert: 11. Nov. 2023

"I recently saw a puffer fish." Nothing too special about that, some might think. "But this particular pufferfish was as tall as a small building." The usual reaction to this statement is wide-eyed disbelief. Or people think, maybe after inhaling too much nitrogen, that I’ve lost my mind...

But this is a true story. In mid-November I went diving south of Bali on the island of Nusa Penida and met one of the most fascinating and mystical creatures on earth - the gigantic ocean sunfish. The sunfish, a member of the pufferfish family, can reach three meters in length, nearly four meters in height, and weigh over two tons! They are the largest bony fish in the world. The biggest ever recorded specimen, according to the Guinness World Records, measures a massive 4.26 meters in height and weighs in at a whopping 2,235 tons. Most people when imagining pufferfish think of a cute, puffed-up balloon, but the sunfish tends to look more like an enormous millstone than a ball - hence the species’ zoological name, Mola mola, ‘mola’ being the Latin word for millstone.

There hadn’t originally been any plan to do a sunfish photo shoot on this trip. Rather, I had wanted to take pictures of sharks in the waters around the islands of Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan. The strong and treacherous currents that pass by the islands change direction frequently, ensuring an abundance of large fish for aquatic enthusiasts to enjoy all year round. This makes the islands one of the best places for diving in Bali.

I was lucky enough to see two sunfish around the two Nusas. The first puffer I encountered disappeared quite quickly, but the second was more tolerant of my presence, making it possible to photograph him extensively. After posing for a while, he suddenly turned and swam away in a flash. Sunfish swim like triggerfish, moving their ventral and dorsal fins to the right and left at the same time. It's amazing to see such an awkward looking giant move so quickly.

The Mola Mola boasts another entry in the Guinness World Records: capable of releasing up to 30 million eggs in one spawning season, this fish is the underwater world’s biggest egg producer. Despite its impressive reproduction capacities, the species is highly endangered and every year, countless numbers of these fascinating animals die. Many of them are killed after they get caught up in the drift nets of boats trawling for swordfish. Others die from swallowing seaborne plastic waste, which blocks the fish’s stomach and intestines.

An even stranger reason for the dwindling numbers is there culinary appeal. Although the fish produce the highly poisonous neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (TTX), they are considered to be a delicacy in Asia, with the Taiwanese and Japanese buying and eating the most pufferfish in the world.

A week before my sunfish experience, I spent a few days in Taiwan and perhaps unconsciously predicting my encounter with the mola mola, I ended up with one or two pieces of the mythical fish on my plate. When I actually saw the size of these underwater beasts a few days later, the thought crossed my mind that the tetrodotoxin from my meal (or a nitrogen overload) might be playing tricks on me, warping my ability to judge dimensions. Luckily, I’ve got the photographic evidence and the Guinness World Records to back up my sanity.

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