I certainly hope that this isn’t the only time I’ll see an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) underwater, but if it is, I can live with that. During a dive in Maori Bay last weekend, exploring the BOS 400 and SS Oakburn shipwrecks, sharp-eyed Liam spotted a large sunfish swimming alongside us, but some distance away. We had advance warning that there were sunfish about (they’d been spotted from the air near Kommetjie, the previous day), so I was mentally and physically prepared with a strategy that I’ve repeatedly rehearsed in my mind to be ready for underwater encounters with marine megafauna.
I switched my camera to video, pointed it at the sunfish, and took off towards it like (I imagined) a bat out of hell. I figured that if I didn’t get close enough to take a proper photo, I would still have a murky video record of the encounter. (Lo and behold, that is all I do have. See below.)
I swam for what felt like a blistering pace for several kilometres (in reality, a sluggish burst of probably 20-30 metres), and then realised that I’d overbreathed my regulator, was taking in quite a bit of water through a tear in the mouthpiece, and that if I didn’t stop finning I’d pass out. During this time the sunfish gained considerable distance on me, got out of focus and out of frame in my video, and then disappeared.
So I stopped, panting, and watched the animal disappear effortlessly into the blue gloom, waving its fins calmly and slowly but – it was clear – moving at a terrific pace. (The overbreathed regulator situation corrected itself swiftly when I started demanding more reasonable amounts of air again.)
I was reminded of other occasions when I’ve tried to keep up with a fish, or a turtle, in order to take its photo or spend just a few more moments in its company. Perhaps there is no shame in being out swum by a fish weighing over a ton with fins to match, but I’ve been humiliated by 30 centimetre long Red Roman, rejecting my friendly advances and outpacing me with a decidedly less impressive fin-to-body size ratio! Next time I want to enjoy the company of an ocean resident for just a little bit longer I’ll try to remember that I’m not in my natural element, and the decision as to whether we get to be close to one another rests almost not at all with me.