What is Mola Mola fish ?
Divers from all corners of the world flock to dive in Bali, and more specifically in Nusa Penida, to encounter the famous Mola Mola fish, also known as the sunfish. We have encountered so many of them while diving with the Dune Penida diving center that we wanted to share our photos and passion for this incredible marine animal with you.
In this article, we will also explore the unique characteristics of this fascinating species and the threats it faces in its natural environment.
How big can a Mola Mola fish get ?
The sunfish is one of the largest bony fishes in the world. In fact, it can reach an impressive size of over 3 meters in length and weigh up to 2 tons. It also has the characteristic of growing throughout its life. It measures only a few millimeters as a larva. Juvenile Mola Mola measure about 60 centimeters in length. They grow rapidly and reach their adult size in just a few years.
What does a Mola Mola look like?
The Mola Mola fish has a distinct and easily recognizable appearance thanks to its round and flattened body. Its skin is thick and often dotted with spots. The color of its skin varies from silver-gray to dark brown, often with golden or silvery highlights. The dorsal and anal fins are short and very far apart, giving the impression that the sunfish has no tail.
Its shape and appearance as a prehistoric animal are striking and unforgettable, especially when you encounter a Mola Mola weighing over a ton in Nusa Penida underwater!
Where to find Mola Mola fish ?
The sunfish is found in temperate and tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Atlantic Ocean. However, the Mola Mola is known for its particularly abundant presence around the island of Bali in Indonesia, and more specifically around the neighboring island of Nusa Penida.
The sunfish is a pelagic fish. It primarily inhabits depths of up to 600 meters. However, during July to October, one can regularly observe the Mola Mola fish close to the surface in Bali. Researchers have confirmed that it follows the seasonal upswings of cold water which brings with it nutrients – a phenomenon known as upwelling.
Mola Mola or sunfish ?
Its name comes from the Latin mola which designates a millstone, a large round stone, flat and gray. Like for example the wheel of the old water mills. Its round shape would also have inspired its name in English (sunfish). But also in Italian (pesce luna), in Spanish (pez luna) in Portuguese (peixe lua) in German (mondfisch) or in French (poisson lune).
What do Mola Mola eat ?
Mola Mola eats mainly jellyfish, but also on zooplankton, squid and small crustaceans. And since this diet is poor in nutrients, it must consume a large amount. A 120 kilo Mola Mola should thus ingest 70 kilos of jellyfish every day to cover its calorie needs!
Due to its diet, the sunfish is considered an important link in the marine food chain, helping to control the population of jellyfish and other marine animals. Scientists have also studied the sunfish’s immune system, which allows it to efficiently digest toxins present in jellyfish, in order to find ways to use them to develop treatments for jellyfish stings in humans.
The parasites of the Mola Mola fish
More than 40 species of parasites can live on and under the skin of a sunfish. This would also explain its seasonal urge to shallower depths. Where the cleaning fish, such as the banner fish, help it to get rid of its parasites. The sunfish also sometimes exposes its flanks to the surface to allow seabirds to feed on its parasites. We even saw a small one at Tugu jumping over the surface of the water in what would be an extreme attempt to dislodge the parasites from its body.
Is the ocean sunfish an endangered species?
One of the main threats to the Mola Mola is overfishing, as its flesh is considered a delicacy in certain cultures. Unsustainable fishing practices can also lead to the accidental capture of sunfish in nets. Fortunately, many countries have implemented regulations to limit the fishing of ocean sunfish.
If you encounter a Mola Mola fish, it’s important to remain still and avoid touching it. These fish have a protective layer of mucus that can be easily removed by human touch, leaving them vulnerable to infection.
When can you see Mola Mola in Bali ? and where ?
The Mola Mola season runs from July until October, in conjunction with upwelling. With the right guide, the probability of seing one is close to one in three.
You may meet them at any diving site in Nusa Penida island. But the most famous site is Crystal Bay dive site. The configuration of the site makes it possible to approach the channel located between Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembogan while being protected from the current, sometimes violent. We usually stand by one of the rocky points of a small island off the bay. It’s called the second corner.
The search for a Mola Mola is like a quest. And this is where all the talent of your guide will be expressed. A good guide will indeed bring you to the best place to watch it, while staying safe.
If you feel the thermocline and if you see a school of banner fish waiting for something, look in the blue, a sunfish should not be very far away.
Our best dives with Mola Mola fish
My first encounter
You will probably remember all your life your first Mola Mola ! In my case it was on September 1st, 2017. I had just returned to Nusa Penida from Paris. After a couple of days looking for one we matched the perfect conditions, at Crystal Bay. I had my GoPro with me and when I saw the dive instructor going into the blue, I said to myself : Bingo! At 25 meters, my first one.
The show is magical, and time stands still. I have seen many more afterwards!
Sunfishs come in threes
Some time later we were diving Ped with guests. At the end of the dive we felt the thermocline. A first sunfish comes to us. The guests are happy. Then a second, everyone is very excited. But when we saw the third one, everybody were super thrilled. The guide of another group who was next to us made a somersault underwater!
14 Mola Mola fish in Bali
October 8, 2018. There three of us at Gamat Bay. There is no current which is quite rare and the dive instructor has the intuition that it is worth going towards the blue, in the channel. And there …
Let’s hear from let Marion :
“During a dive there we stopped to admire one sunfish, then two, then three, until we realized we were on Sunfish highway, surrounded by fourteen of them ! Lucky you want to say? It all depends on the guide! So get your fins! ”
The combo Mola Mola Manta Ray (or Mola Manta)
September 14, 2023. The previous day, we spotted a whale shark at Manta Point with Dune Penida dive center. So, we really wanted to see it again… We jumped in the water directly to the Manta Point wall. We were diving with Fhon, a friend and dive instructor from Phuket, who had brought her big camera. We saw the first Manta ray, then a second one.
And then, Karl, Dune Bali and Dune Penida course director, started making big signs. He had spotted a Mola Mola. We swam towards him and saw a second one! Fhon took this beautiful photo and only realized afterwards that both Mola Molas were in her picture. She was so focused that she had only seen one! You can watch my video at the end of this article.
4 Mola Mola fish and a Manta Ray
August 31, 2019. Célia, who joined the dive center the whole 2019 season as an instructor, brings her guests to Manta Point. And there, bingo again : 4 beautiful sunfish with a Manta ray ! Christine and Jean-Philippe, dive master trainee with Warnakali dive center, took some awesome photos.
There are other places to see sunfish in Bali
November 13, 2019. We go on a short trip to Gili Tepekong, in front of Padang Bai. It’s a nice boat ride from Toyapakeh in Nusa Penida, where our boat is based. I will long remember the first dive in the morning, which was clearly not a long, calm river. But also the second, with a giant Mola Mola who followed us for almost the entire time of the dive.
Ready to meet your first sunfish ?
Dune Penida diving center will be happy to guide you on the different diving sites of Nusa Penida and Bali. You may see sunfish all year round, but if you want to maximize your chances of meeting one, schedule your trip between July and October. And try to plan several days of diving, because the odds are not 100 %.
Some centers will offer you to dive at Crystal Bay every day until you meet one. But whatever the beauty of the site, you will quickly get tired of the second corner of Crystal Bay. And as you may have read above, it is possible to find it on all the diving sites in Nusa Penida. It is just a matter of selecting the right dive guide.
The chance are low to meet a sunfish during a discovery dive, because we find him usually below the 12 meters maximum depth for discovery divers.
However, if you are certified, we can take you on a search for a fun dive or a diving safari. It is also quite possible to take advantage of open water, advanced open water, rescue diver or dive master training to meet the sunfish. As well as all the incredible flora and fauna of Nusa Penida. Some very beautiful dives in perspective in any case !
Dune Penida dive resort
The Adiwana Warnakali hotel is home to the Dune Penida PADI 5-star dive center, in an exceptional location perched above Toyapakeh harbor on Nusa Penida.
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