“I don’t know what this is, but Jesus, it’s a f***in’ big sea turtle,’’ said Michael Bergin in the video heard ‘round the world.
Alas, Bergin was wrong. The big fish flopping around near his boat in Boston Harbor was not a sea turtle, or a “baby f***in’ whale,’’ or Moby Dick. The bizarre animal in question is actually a sunfish and is, in the words of marine biologist Inga Potter, “an ocean oddball.’’
Potter, who studies these giant creatures at the University of New Hampshire, spoke to Boston.com to dispell some of Bergin’s—and the general public’s—misconceptions about them.
“That’s a tuna, bro! Jay, that’s a tuna or somethin’.’’
Nope, it’s an Ocean sunfish. According to Potter, the Mola mola (the sunfish’s Latin name) is the heaviest bony fish in the world. It’s a member of the puffer fish family, though its relatives tend to be smaller and found on coral reefs rather than the open ocean, according to Potter. These huge fish, which weigh between 300 and 500 pounds, are common in New England in the summer and early fall. But, like any smart Bostonian, they head south for the winter, migrating down to the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, or Florida.
“We gotta call the aquarium or something, dude!’’
“The gentleman in the video was saying it’s sick, which is a common misconception,’’ Potter said, “but it’s actually perfectly healthy.’’ True to their name, sunfish bask in the sun and float on their sides, often appearing hurt to people not familiar with their habits.
Scientists still aren’t exactly sure why the fish sunbathe, but one theory is that they’re trying to warm their bodies after diving as deep as 800 meters below the surface, where the water is very cold. Potter added that the Mola mola may just float around flapping their fins because “it feels good’’ (hey, we’ve all been there).
“That thing looks dead, man.’’
The fish in the video is very much alive. But what could kill it? “Getting hit by boats is probably the biggest threat to them in the Northwest Atlantic,’’ Potter said. In the Pacific, where sunfish tend to be smaller, sharks will eat them. But here, according to Potter, they get so big that they outgrow most predators.
“We can get some big money for that if it’s a f***in’ fish, man.’’
Unfortunately, Bergin was out of luck when it came to cashing in on his find. In truth, sunfish are actually pretty gnarly, and Potter said she doesn’t know anyone who’s ever eaten one.
“They’re covered in slime,’’ Potter said, “in a mucus that’s pretty disgusting, and they’re also covered in parasites.’’ Potter did say that people eat sunfish in Asia. As for the Mola mola’s diet, they eat jellyfish. Lots and lots of jellyfish. Because when you weigh 500 pounds, something’s gotta keep you going.
“Oh my god man, we are seein’ some sh*it we ain’t never seen before.’’
On this point, Bergin was right. “They are unique, cool creatures,’’ Potter said. Even though these fish are pretty common around here, not many people have seen them, since they tend to travel alone, dive so deep, and hang out in the open ocean.
“The reaction is funny,’’ Potter said. “Everyone has been sending me that video. It’s great to get more attention on them.’’