Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sunfish, Moonfish

Ocean sunfish, or Mola-mola —Wiki
One evening circa 1974, we were walking along the shore at Cannery Row where the Monterey Bay Aquarium now stands, admiring a full moonrise over the bay. As we ambled towards a seafood restaurant on Cannery Row, I noticed something odd on the rock reef. The moon glinted on a reflection of itself. But then I saw a fin flip up, as if it were waving to the moon. Oh my gawd, whatever it is, it's still alive.

I hiked out the reef to find a strange sea monster stranded on the rocks at low tide. It was big as a millstone and silvery as the moon. I didn't know whether to shriek and run away, or what. The oddest creature I'd ever seen was watching me warily with an enormous eye, its little beak mouth opening and closing as if in supplication. I couldn't just leave it there to die. 

Not knowing what it was, I called it a moonfish. Now, I'm not sure who its mommy & daddy were, but I imagined a very large fish picked up the full moon at a Cannery Row bar, and well, after a few martinis, one thing led to another. Their progeny, like flounder gone wrong.

Mola-molas look like they were designed by Pictionary. All head and a scalloped petticoat for a pseudo-tailfin (called a clavus)—with nothing much going on in the middle. It looks like somebody forgot to add the body. Add a dorsal fin like a sail and an anal fin like a rudder and you have a mola-mola—a large winged coin. Mola is Latin for millstone.

They're also called sunfish because these deep-water fish like to laze and swim on the surface of the ocean to catch a few rays. Normally a pelagic fish, mola-molas like to dine on jellyfish and that year the jellies were so numerous they decorating the sea like flotillas of hot air balloons. Kids were tossing pennies onto their mantles to make them sink.

This particular sun/moonfish wasn't clear on his own minimum height requirements for tidepooling (or the uselessness of fins on dry land), and he certainly wasn't clear on the concept of outgoing tide. So much for sunbathing, this was one vertically-challenged moonbathing mola-mola stranded on the rocks. He wasn't going to make it moonbathing like that on the rocks overnight until the tide came back in.

I hoisted the mola-mola up—he was the size of a hefty truck tire. It was like holding a big slippery moon in my arms. What I didn't know at the time is that they can weigh 2000 to 3500 pounds, full grown—the largest bony fish in the world. This guy was a svelte baby—somewhere between 70 to 100 pounds.

I wasn't expecting so much slime. The fish didn't have scales, but he was greased up better than a banana slug at a greased pig contest. I nearly went into the drink a few times, staggering beneath his bulk, skidding on sea lettuce festooning the rocks, while usuccessfully dodging shallow tidepools. My shoes would survive a saltwater bath but my new Irish coat sweater was ruined. I nearly dropped him a few times. My arms ached from his tarnished weight. But I was committed to dragging him to safety.

Tottering on the rocks, like a drunk clown, I reached deep water and eased him into a deep tidepool, nearly falling in headfirst in the process. I hadn't accounted for his weight as I bent forward. He lay on his side gasping, as if incanting a prayer to the moon, his small fins rhythmically slapping the water—as if in applause. I thought I was too late. Don't die now. How on earth do you give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a fish? But then, he slowly righted himself and then he eased into deeper water. 

I was startled by the sound of people applauding. I looked up to see what it was about. All the diners on the balcony gave me a standing ovation. I was thoroughly slimed, my Irish sweater ruined, and I smelled more than a bit fishy. Sardines came to mind. All I could mutter was: hypocrites.

Needless to saythat night, fish was not on my menu. Not one of those diners thought to pick up our dinner tab or offer us a drink. They went back to their fish dinners and tucked in. That night I dreamed the moon came to me to lay in my arms. It was my birthday.

Monterey Bay AquariumWiki

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