Monday, November 16, 2009

Holy mola!

No mola molas, also known as ocean sunfish, in the Outer Bay or any other exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium yet, but rumor has it that there are two being groomed behind the scenes.

One has some health issues. Molas are prey to a mind-boggling array of parasitic and bacterial diseases. If he can’t be cured, he’ll be released back into the Bay to live out his natural life span.

And the other mola is just not big enough yet. Despite the fact that hammerhead sharks in general are usually considered more dangerous (#10 on the Most  Dangerous to Humans list, world-wide), it’s the Galapagos sharks in that exhibit that everyone worries about.

Divers go into that tank in pairs. One to do whatever, the other to keep an eye on the Galapagos.

(Shortly before her release, the Great White shark had apparently had enough, and gave one of the Galapagos a nasty bite. The Aquarium’s fabulous vet, Dr. Mike, decided that it would do more harm than good to try to take the bitten shark out of the water to examine and treat her wound. Any thrashing she might do in the process of being lifted out of the water could open the wound further. But he thought it would be a good idea to give her an antibiotic, to be safe.  So an intrepid diver was sent into the tank, WITH A BIG HYPERDERMIC NEEDLE ATTACHED TO A  VERY LONG STICK, to inject the shark. What followed was a good half hour of diver-with-a-big-needle-on-a-long-stick chasing a MUCH faster, MUCH more agile, MUCH more dangerous animal with MANY more teeth around and around (and around and around….) the two-million gallon, 60 foot deep tank.

Keep in mind that there are TWO Galapagos in that tank, three hammerheads, and, at that point, an increasingly cranky Great White. Kind of a high-stakes aquatic Keystone cops routine ensued. And you know, they almost never get their shark, er, man.

This all happened last week, and I’m really sorry I missed it. By all accounts it was a sight worth seeing…

I don’t know think the diver was ever successful—the person telling the story had to leave before the show was over. If not, there are also several other ways the antibiotic could have eventually been administered: in the shark’s food, or with a needle (attached to a shorter stick) when the shark came to the surface in response to food. In any case, the Galapagos seems to be doing fine.

I’m pretty the final score was Galapagos-1, Diver-0.)

But back to the molas. Or lack thereof.

Before a mola can be added to the exhibit, the fish needs to be big enough to avoid getting eaten. By one of the Galapagos, or anything else.

Molas are slow, strange creatures that look like a fish cut in half. They’re just a giant head, with two long, flat triangular fins sticking straight out the top and bottom, and then…nothing. The fish stops there. No long body, no split tail fins, just a a funny, slightly ruffled edge, like a torn piece of paper, that passes for its tail.

And, head on, the wrinkled, toothless face of an old, old man.

They’re the most fecund fish in the ocean—they produce jillions of eggs, which hatch into teeny tiny little molas. As young fish, molas are slow, and have no natural defenses. Other fish like to pick on them. Sharks, orcas, and sea lions like to eat them. Years ago one of the aquarists told me of a collecting trip out on the Bay, where he observed a couple of sea lions flicking a young mola back and forth between them on the surface like a helpless, living Frisbee.

The molas that survive, eating mostly jellyfish, which are mostly water, grow as big as they can, as fast as they can.  Eventually they get so big that their size alone protects them.

When they get too big, the Aquarium releases them back into the ocean. A couple of years ago, a mola in that exhibit grew from 55 lbs. to 880 lbs. in just fifteen months. That’s a LOT of jellyfish.  There’s a great picture of him (her?) here:

That’s really what they look like. Completely improbable. That particular one really did grow that big. (That’s one of the Galapagos sharks in the bottom right corner.) The Aquarium had to use a special crane to hoist it out of the tank—quick—before it got any bigger.

But in the ocean, sunfish grow even bigger. Much, MUCH bigger. One caught off Santa Catalina Island in 1910 weighed over 3,500 pounds.

And even bigger ones—up to 5,000 pounds—have been reported. I would love to see one in open water—somehow my brain balks when I try to imagine a fish that size. Even half a fish.

I’m a big fan of science fiction, a geek from way back. If there are creatures this weird or weirder in our oceans—and there are: science knows more about the dark face of the moon than about the deep oceans here on Earth—then the chance of life on other planets seems inevitable. Which is a thought I find comforting.

Maybe somewhere out there is a world where giant molas are in control. Beaming out telepathic commands as they scud peacefully, unmolested and mostly unobserved,  through deep, wide seas that cover most of the planet.

Maybe it’s this one.