In Defense of the Most Worthless, Helpless Creature on the Planet
Let ocean sunfish live.
Let's talk about evolution's own Friday afternoon fish, the ocean sunfish, or mola mola. This giant underwater hang-loose hand with eyes is doing the most with what it's got.
A now-viral Facebook post by Scout Burns started the nerdiest debate on Facebook. Her screed, deemed too mean for a different group but reposted on her own page, is an ode to why the ocean sunfish is the world's most ridiculous creature. She calls it a cosmic dinner plate that "God must have accidentally dropped while washing dishes one day and shrugged his shoulders at because no one could have imagined this would happen."
Motherboard reached out to Burns for comment, and will update if she responds.
It's understandable that someone would find the ocean sunfish repellently dumb. Even the mola mola's many nicknames—schwimmender kopf ("swimming head") in German, putol ("cut short") in the Philippines, and "toppled car fish" in Taiwan—belie its absurd reputation. That last one is an especially accurate burn, because the mola mola grows to roughly the size and shape of a trash-compacted car.
Seriously, these things are huge. The ocean sunfish holds the Guinness world record for heaviest, most fecund bony fish. One of the biggest of these gold star boys weighed 5,071 pounds. The average weight is more like one ton, but it carries that heft along six to 10 feet of flattened flesh, flapping through the water like a smashed Prius. A mola mola raised in Monterey Bay Aquarium had to be airlifted out by helicopter and released into the bay when it gained 800 pounds in 14 months and outgrew its tank.
The ocean sunfish shares a strong resemblance with, coincidentally, the most worthless Pokémon, Magikarp. Its face, with its beak-like fused teeth and plump lips, looks perpetually like it's remembering that it left the stove on at home: a little concerned, a lot confused.
You might think this is because the mola mola is the Dumb Ways to Die poster child of the sea. But if you can get beyond the incredibly stupid looks on their faces, the beautiful truth becomes clear: Ocean sunfish, a fish that's been dealt a rough evolutionary hand, are rolling with it. They are living.
Seeing Burns' Facebook rant, which has now been shared on Facebook alone more than 75,000 times, marine biology and veterinary student and "really big fish fan" Zenia Sherman banged out her own defense of the mola mola:
Sherman told me that a friend showed her that viral rant, and inspired her to write her own mini-research paper as a retort, bibliography section and all.
So, is the mola mola actually as worthless as many of its haters seem to think? To try and settle the world's nerdiest flame war, let's go through the finer points of the ocean sunfish's singular existence.
Ocean sunfish have been around. Early human records show that the species was spotted in ancient Greek and Roman times, roughly 1200 B.C.- 400 A.D., but it's one of the most recently-derived fish species in the sea, evolving 50 million years after most modern fishes. Throughout that evolution, from the same family as pufferfish, its dorsal fin and anal fin fused together, giving it the appearance of a giant head with fins.
Unlike their pufferfish cousins, mola mola don't have swim bladders. You may write this off as another reason the mola mola is a half-baked joke, but sharks and tunas don't have swim bladders, either. They don't need 'em. Having a swim bladder would keep the mola mola from grazing the surface and then diving to depths down to 50 meters, which it often does.
Although it looks super dead when it floats on the surface, a sun-bathing mola mola isn't chilling because it toppled over and said "oh well, fuck it." Their flat bodies and slow jaunt through the ocean makes them perfect hosts for parasites, and floating on the water invites birds to come clean their freeloaders off. Scientists believe the basking could be a way for them to digest food—mostly jellyfish—as sharks often do. Floating one's huge flat body in warm sunlit water after a big meal sounds really nice.
Aside from those hungry birds, most of the mola mola's 99 problems are other bitches in the ocean. Sea lions, being their own special type of oceanic assholes, have been known to tear fins off of mola mola and toss them around for funsies.
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium—the only aquarium to keep mola molas and release them back into the wild—these big, loveable idiots are so chill that faster fish, like tunas and bonitos, beat them to their feedings and scarf all the food. Their keepers had to develop a color-coded system for the mola molas, which they place at the surface to signal "it's time to eat, so hurry your truncated mis-evolved ass up over here and get fed."
Ocean sunfish occasionally choke to death on floating plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish. That's sad as hell, 100 percent humanity's bad, and no fault of the ocean sunfish. We are bigger assholes than even the sea lions and tuna.
To resist every disadvantage thrown at them, the mola mola lays the hell outta some eggs—300 million at a time. They're survivors, dammit, and nothing will stop them from proliferating throughout the world's waters.
Many humans really love these giant doofuses. Marine biologist Tierney Thys adores them. When she started a fan club at OceanSunfish.org, people from all backgrounds wrote in to express their appreciation for the mola mola. "Sure it might be one big ol' silly fish," she said in a 2003 TED talk, "but if it's helping to unite the world, I think it's definitely the fish of the future." Vigilant mola mola watchers post sightings for the edification of us all. As of this writing, their last sunfish sighting was in April, where one washed up on shore. Dammit.
The only creature in the ocean that deserves true scorn is the guy who tried to ride a mola mola and covered his own crotch in parasites in the process. Please don't ride the sea life like an awkward underwater pony, no matter how trusting and pure the creature is.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.