Diver Encounters a Gigantic Enormous Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) near San Diego

San Diego is the world’s best place to see the giant ocean sunfish (Mola mola). I have made many trips offshore with my dive buddies to find ocean sunfish, sometimes as far as 40 miles out where the water is blue, warm and clear. Occasionally we will find one or more inquisitive sunfish, ones that will swim close to us and allow us to get some photographs. Typically these crazy-looking fish are three to five feet (1-2m) in diameter, but occasionally we will come across a really big one, the rare gigantic enormous ocean sunfish. Here are a few of my favorite photographs of the big ones.

Ocean sunfish and photographer, open ocean, Mola mola, San Diego, California

Ocean sunfish and photographer, open ocean.
Image ID: 03324
Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola
Location: San Diego, California, USA

Ocean sunfish and freediving photographer, open ocean, Mola mola, San Diego, California

Ocean sunfish and freediving photographer, open ocean.
Image ID: 03491
Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola
Location: San Diego, California, USA

In these photographs, big ocean sunfish swim alongside my friend Mike Johnson. One of these was the biggest ocean sunfish I have ever seen, and he was referencing to our boat since there was no kelp paddy around. The big ones are often tolerant of people, and this one let us photograph him from all angles. You can see a few copepods on the bottom of the mola, forward of the lower fin. Molas are often riddled with parasites, and occasionally would be so desperate they would approach and allow a diver to pluck the copepods off of them. Super gross!! And yet I had to do it. There’s nothing as icky as seeing a mola mola shiver with relief when you pull the long slimy copepod out of it. But then you have a problem — what to do with the copepod you are holding in your hand? Yuck-a-doo, get it away from me lest it decide I am its next host! If you are wondering what that camera is that Mike’s holding, it’s a Nikonos with a special add-on dome port, rendering a wider view than the usual 15mm lens most Nikonos users used.

Ocean sunfish, Mola mola, San Diego, California

Ocean sunfish.
Image ID: 02028
Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola
Location: San Diego, California, USA

Ocean sunfish and freediving photographer, open ocean, Mola mola, San Diego, California

Ocean sunfish and freediving photographer, open ocean.
Image ID: 03325
Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola
Location: San Diego, California, USA

How do you find an ocean sunfish? Get in a boat, drive out to see for 5-20 miles, and look around. If you find drifting clumps of kelp — often called a kelp paddy — you may find one or more ocean sunfish hovering near the kelp. Why do they do this? The kelp harbors juvenile fish. The ocean sunfish have parasites, and wish to be cleaned by the juvenile fish. It’s an open-ocean cleaning station! Here are a few ocean sunfish referencing kelp paddies:

Ocean sunfish recruiting fish near drift kelp to clean parasites, open ocean, Baja California, Mola mola

Ocean sunfish recruiting fish near drift kelp to clean parasites, open ocean, Baja California.
Image ID: 03267
Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola

Ocean sunfish hovers near drift kelp to recruite juvenile fish to remove parasites, open ocean, Mola mola, San Diego, California

Ocean sunfish hovers near drift kelp to recruite juvenile fish to remove parasites, open ocean.
Image ID: 10001
Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola
Location: San Diego, California, USA