Rare photos show Mola molas feeding on by-the-wind sailors

Monterey Bay Whale Watch
Mola mola slurps a by-the-wind sailor in Monterey Bay. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

By-the-wind sailors are remarkable critters, living on the ocean’s surface and traveling wherever the wind and currents dictate, which is usually far from shore.

Likewise, Mola molas are remarkable fish, the largest of bony fishes, also somewhat alien-like in appearance, roaming tropical and temperate sea and slurping up sea jellies as a means of subsistence.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch
Mola molas have small mouths, so use their eyes to help locate the tiny prey. Photo ©Jodi Frediani

The two species aren’t usually seen together because of their pelagic nature, but when by-the-wind sailors (Velella velella) began to arrive on and along the West Coast shoreline by the millions about a month ago, because of unusual ocean conditions, more Mola molas appeared as well.

As a result of this peculiar phenomenon, a photographer in California’s vast Monterey Bay, has captured rare and stunning photos showing Mola molas, or ocean sunfish, snacking on the blue-hued critters, which are not technically sea jellies, but are gelatinous and seemingly ideal as sunfish hors d’oeuvres.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch
By-the-wind sailors are not actual sea jellies, but they are gelatinous. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

“As we were out searching for whales on the Sea Wolf II on Sunday, I saw something small breach the surface of the water,” said Jodi Frediani, who captured the accompanying images while with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. “It took a moment before I realized it was an ocean sunfish. As we approached to get a better look, we could see its dorsal fin slicing the water like a shark as its head came out to slurp up a small velella.

“This was only the second time I had seen the molas feeding in this fashion. We begged Captain and marine biologist Nancy Black to let us stay to observe and take photos.”

Monterey Bay Whale Watch
Mola mola sizes up a by-the-wind sailor. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

Black, who has decades of experience in Monterey Bay, had never witnessed this phenomenon.

“Over the past two years Monterey Bay has seen an influx of the brilliantly colored Velella velellas drifting on the sea surface, at the mercy of wind and waves,” Frediani continued. “They have washed ashore in large numbers, their cobalt blue platforms drying in the sun leaving nothing behind but a thin clear husk. Some say it’s been eight or more years since these by-the-wind sailors have been seen locally.

By-the-wind sailors inside Monterey Bay. Photo: Jodi Frediani

“We think the ocean currents and the wealth of velellas have also brought more sunfish into the Bay. We watched three different molas feed on the small velellas [on Monday], much to everyone’s delight. While we did see thick patches of velellas, the molas tended to be in areas where they could easily single out individuals.”

The photographer, more accustomed to shooting large whales and other marine mammals, said she learned a lot about Mola molas while inspecting her images.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch
Closeup of a Mola mola seemingly missing out on a by-the-wind sailor snack. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

“I have always wondered about the large prominent eyes of these oddly shaped fish, but one could watch their eyes rotate as they zeroed in on the velellas. Given the clumsy nature of these fish, vision seems essential to help them feed on small floating snacks.”

Mola molas, Frediani pointed out, more commonly feed on large jellies, such as the egg-yolk jelly often found in Monterey Bay.

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