Archive for November, 2009

Ocean Sunfish Strandings Continue on Cape Cod

Monday, November 9th, 2009

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Don Lewis Discovers Ocean Sunfish on Dennis Beach

The Turtle Journal Team patrolled Dennis beaches on Saturday morning in search for cold-stunned sea turtles.  The first wave of sea turtle strandings has yet to come ashore due to lingering temperate conditions and the lack of a sustained wind event so far this fall.  About a quarter mile short of Corporation Beach, Don discovered a large ocean sunfish that had stranded with the early morning high tide.

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Location of Dennis Ocean Sunfish

The Dennis ocean sunfish came ashore at 41° 44′ 56.35″ N 070° 11″ 52″ W.  Within the last week at least five ocean sunfish have stranded on Cape Cod bayside beaches.  None that the Turtle Journal Team has inspected have measured up to the 7-footers that we found last November.

Click Here to View Video in High Quality 

Discovery of Ocean Sunfish on Corporation Beach

The video documents the initial discovery of the giant ocean sunfish on Corporation Beach during Saturday morning’s sea turtle patrol.

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Stranded Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

When it comes to bizarre, nothing in our corner of the universe matches the ocean sunfish (Mola mola).  It’s the most massive bony fish in the world.  [Yep.  That “bony” adjective excludes sharks (cartilaginous) and, of course, the “fish” category cuts out whales and dolphins (mammals) and giant squid (cephalopods) and even our favorite sea serpent: Nessie.  Doesn’t seem fair.]  Researchers in the Pacific claim that they have documented an ocean sunfish that reached 14 feet (from dorsal fin tip to anal fin tip) and 10 feet long from face to clavus (caudal fin), and hit the scales at near 5000 pounds.

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Sue Wieber Nourse Photo-Documents Ocean Sunfish

That’s right:  nearly round, flat and awfully heavy … like a millstone and voilà, the Latin word for millstone is “mola.”  Yet, un-millstone like, the ocean sunfish swims lithely through the water not flat like a flounder, but upright with its dorsal fin topside and its anal fin beneath.  As the sunfish cuts through the ocean, its dorsal fin often prompts shouts of “shark” from nervous observers.  Sunfish are also known to bask motionlessly on the surface for thermoregulation (a.k.a., to warm up).

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Makeshift Measuring Box for Stranded Mola mola

The sea patrol leg to Corporation Beach stretches two miles long.  So unsurprisingly, we ran into the stranded ocean sunfish without our usual data collection kit.  Fearing that the incoming 12-foot flood tide would quickly reclaim the Mola mola, we resorted to a makeshift measuring box to obtain gross data.  In the sand we drew a rectangle touching the tip to the anal fin, tip of the dorsal fin, tip of the snout and trailing edge of the clavus (rudder) or caudal fin.  Luckily, my New Balance sneakers measure exactly one foot from heel to toe, providing a roughly calibrated ruler.

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Ocean Sunfish Framed in Makeshift Measuring Box

This Corporation Beach Mola mola measured 5 feet 3 inches long from snout to the trailing edge of caudal fin.  It measured 6 feet 6 inches wide/high from the tip of the dorsal fin to the tip of the anal fin.

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Documenting the Ocean Sunfish

Looking at the ocean sunfish from the bottom, we find the snout, the mouth and the left eye to the left side of the photograph.  The gills, covered by an operculum, and the pectoral fin are located anterior of the center.  The dorsal fin lies at the top right and the anal fin on the bottom center.  The clavus (rudder), also called the caudal fin, falls to the right center of the image.  A raw redness surrounds the anal opening on the bottom and is dotted with embedded parasites.

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Front Quadrant of Ocean Sunfish

The snout lies above the mouth to the left of the picture.  The left eye falls in the line between the snout and the pectoral fin, which is bent downward in the image.  In front of the pectoral fin are the gills covered by a protective operculum.  Dorsal (top) and anal (bottom) fins extend from the body at the far right.  The anal opening lies in front of the anal fin on the bottom right.

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Close-Up of the Ocean Sunfish Mouth

Note the fused teeth that frame the top and bottom of the Mola mola mouth.

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Extreme Close-Up of the Ocean Sunfish Left Eye

The eye lies about midway between the snout and the operculum that covers of the gills in front of the pectoral fin.

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Close-Up of Operculum and Pectoral Fin of Ocean Sunfish

About a third of the way back from the snout lies the gills which are covered by a protective operculum.  Immediately behind the gills is the pectoral fin.

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Extreme Close-Up of the Operculum of an Ocean Sunfish

The protective operculum covers the gills that lie immediately in front of the pectoral fin.

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Ocean Sunfish Clavus or Caudal Fin

The truncated tail of the ocean sunfish is called a clavus (rudder) or caudal fin.

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Parasite Embedded Near Anal Opening of Ocean Sunfish

A number of parasites were fully embedded around the anal opening, in front of the anal fin, of this ocean sunfish.  Some of the parasites had fallen off the animal now dry and baking in direct sunlight.

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Extreme Close-Up of Ocean Sunfish Parasite

Along with pictures of the infestation, a specimen has been provided to a local parasitolgist.  Analysis of the parasite continues.

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Ocean Sunfish on Corporation Beach, Dennis, Cape Cod

The ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is a magnificent marine critter that inspires awe whenever spotted, whether basking in the summer waters of Stellwagen Bank or stranded on a bayside beach in the fall conditions.

Ode to a Lazy Seal

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

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Tourists Gone And the Living is Easy!

Boats hauled and tourists have abandoned Outer Cape Cod for parts south and warm.  Summer bustle’s been replaced by laughing gulls and snoozing seals.  Nature’s returned to a slower, more tempered rhythm.  

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Lazy Harbor Seal

A juvenile harbor seal has squatted on the deserted floating dock in the protected shadow of Wellfleet Pier.  Surrounded by legions of seagulls, the seal rolls off its waterbed into a lunch bowl teeming with bite-sized fish.  A moment of frenzied munching, an undulating reach to recapture the perfect napping position on the swaying dock, and it’s back to the important business of the day: storing blubber for the long, hard winter ahead.

Click Here to View Video in High Quality

Ode to a Lazy Seal

There are times in the struggle of life when unemployment soars into the teens and every other road between Race Point and Sagamore Bridge is clogged, closed and detoured that the quiet life of a harbor seal seems an attractive alternative.  But then winter comes.  

Ocean Sunfish Washes Ashore in Wellfleet Harbor

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

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Sue Wieber Nourse and Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

The Turtle Journal Team searched Chipman’s Cove in Wellfleet Harbor on Outer Cape Cod this morning for a reported ocean sunfish.  We received a call on our 24/7 hotline (508-274-5108) Monday from a part-time resident who had observed a large, strange fish that had washed ashore with the Hunter Moon tide on Saturday.  The observer said that he identified the critter as an ocean sunfish based on the photographic posting in the Turtle Journal.  Today, November 4th, marked the first time we had an opportunity to visit the site to confirm the identification and to see if this Mola mola had moved with the tides.  To quote Bob Prescott of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, “Even though it’s dead, it keeps moving around.”

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6’1″ from Tip of Dorsal Fin to Tip of Anal Fin

Ocean sunfish represent the most massive bony fish in the world.  For more detailed information, you may wish to read Exotic Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) published on Turtle Journal last year at this time.  The specimen we found at the leading edge of today’s incoming flood tide measured more than a foot smaller in length and width than the several 7 footers we discovered last November.  Stretching the tape for a straight-line measurement from the tip of the dorsal fin to the tip of the anal fin, we recorded a width (or height) of 6 feet 1 inch.

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5’10.5″ from Snout to Clavus (Caudal Fin)

Measuring from tip of the snout to the trailing edge of the clavus or caudal fin, we got a length of 5 feet 10.5 inches.

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Pectoral Fin, Gill Slits, Sunken Eye and Mouth with Fused Teeth

From the state of the carcass, this ocean sunfish has been floating around the harbor for some time in water too warm to preserve it from rapid decomposition.


Ocean Sunfish off Lieutenant Island in Early October

If you follow the Turtle Journal Team adventures on Twitter (, you would have read of our discovery of an earlier ocean sunfish off Lieutenant Island on October 7th.  We posted a tweet and a cellphone picture (see above) of a badly decomposed Mola mola carcass off Plover Point (northwest corner of the island). 

Turtle Journal tweets live events from the field on Twitter to keep you aware of what’s happening on Cape Cod while it’s still happening.  You may wish to tune in to our tweets, especially during the sea turtle stranding season, which should begin with a fury during the next storm wave that strikes the Outer Cape.  Twitter affords you the chance to adventure out in the wild with us during the rawest, most dangerous conditions while still in the comfort and relative safety of your computer screen.

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

Today’s Tweet of Ocean Sunfish from the Field

The Turtle Journal Team tweets ( live reports and quick snapshots from the field.  Turtle Journal posts ( detailed stories, high quality photographs and videos of the events.  Two ways you can join the Turtle Journal Team and our adventures.  The third and most important way you can participate is to call us through the hotline (508-274-5108) with sighting reports and rescue opportunities.  Only with a large cadre of partners with eyes and ears on nature from the SouthCoast to the tip of Cape Cod can we document what’s happening and continue to “save the world, one species at a time.”

Wellfleet Harbor Seals Return for Halloween

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

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Wellfleet Harbor Seal on Halloween Afternoon

A powerful southwest wind blew 60 degree temperatures onto Outer Cape Cod on Halloween Saturday, enticing a young harbor seal to bask on deserted floating docks in the lee of Wellfleet’s town pier. 

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Birds Hunker on Floating Docks in Lee of Wellfleet Pier

Boats have largely abandoned the docks, hauled out for the long, hard winter ahead, leaving these man-made islands to shorebirds and seals.

Click Here to View Video in High Quality

Seals Return to Wellfleet Harbor

With humans gone and flocks of birds to serve as “guard dogs,” shy young seals feel confident enough to return to Wellfleet Harbor, bask in the protected estuary and chow down for winter.

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Juvenile Harbor Seal on Wellfleet Dock

As beautiful and cuddly as seals may appear, remember that these are wild animals protected by federal laws and regulations.  They can be quite ferocious in defending themselves, their territory and their peace.  Do not disturb seals.  Enjoy them from a safe distance and use a telephoto lens for close-up photography.

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Harbor Seal Enjoys Cat Nap on Wellfleet Dock

What may at first seem to be a helpless animal in need of rescue is much more often simply a basking seal hauled out for some well earned R&R.  Injured and diseased marine mammals (seals, porpoises, dolphins, small whales) should be reported to the Cape Cod Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 508-743-9548.  Stranded sea turtles should be reported to Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508-349-2615).  They are highly trained and licensed to handle these emergency situations.

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Happy Halloween from Wellfleet Harbor