Untamed Lowcountry

Hilton Head beachgoers find bizarre 4-foot ‘pancake of a fish’ washing up in surf

There were cries of ‘shark, shark’ in NC waterway. But it was actually something cooler

A video posted to Facebook shows a fin swimming through the water and shouts of “shark” to swimmers participating in Wrightville Beach’s Swim the Loop. It actually appeared to be a large mola mola, or sunfish.
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A video posted to Facebook shows a fin swimming through the water and shouts of “shark” to swimmers participating in Wrightville Beach’s Swim the Loop. It actually appeared to be a large mola mola, or sunfish.

On the same day a young seal showed up on Hilton Head Island, beachgoers nearby found another unusual sight washing up in the surf.

Photos show the body of large fish in the waves. It was an ocean sunfish — also called a Mola mola — and it came to rest on Monday afternoon near beach marker 74, in the Palmetto Dunes area.

The fish measured about 4 feet long, said Mike Wagner, operations manager for Shore Beach Service. He said he’s seen them wash up in the area “a couple of times.”

Sunfish can be gigantic. National Geographic says they can grow 14 feet tall, 10 feet long and weigh 5,000 pounds.

A massive 6-foot sunfish washed up on an Australian beach last weekend. Passersby said they thought, at first, that was a large piece of driftwood, the BBC reported.

With its large dorsal fin sticking out of the water, a sunfish was mistaken for a shark last fall in the water off North Carolina.

A video posted to Facebook shows a fin swimming through the water and shouts of “shark” to swimmers participating in Wrightville Beach’s Swim the Loop. It actually appeared to be a large mola mola, or sunfish.

Earlier this month, a rare hoodwinker sunfish — Mola tecta — washed ashore in California. The Mola tecta was first identified in 2017 and is not generally seen in the northern hemisphere.

The Atlantic recently wrote that the creatures are “fundamentally bizarre.”

One scientist quoted in The Atlantic said sunfish are a “giant pancake of a fish,” and a “big bag of mysteries.”

That report goes on to explain that scientists are still trying to figure out much about the sunfish, such as how their strange fins work, how much they eat or how long they typically live.



A lengthy blog post from the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, was much more complimentary. It called the jellyfish-eaters “among the most misunderstood animals on the planet.”

What scientists do know is that sunfish swim to the surface and turn onto their sides to soak up some rays from the sun.

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A sunfish measuring about 4 feet long is buried after washing up on Hilton Head Island Monday afternoon. Mike Wagner Shore Beach Service

Fuzzy Davis, a longtime fishing charter captain on Hilton Head, said this habit leaves them vulnerable to being hit by boats or freighters.

Davis said the east-northeast winds the island has experienced lately make it plausible that such a large fish could have drifted in pretty easily from the Gulf Stream, where they are known to live.

cropped sunfish hhi.jpg
Iain Craig Submitted

It is not known why the sunfish that washed up on Hilton Head died.

Shore Beach Service buried it on the beach.

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