The staff at the Coal Oil Point Reserve in California can’t miss the 600-pound creature that has washed up from the Pacific Ocean. But while, at first, the team think that they know the species of the giant critter, a closer look sees them realize that they’ve gotten things all wrong. And, unsettlingly, the experts have no idea what this monstrous beast actually is.
Considering how large the animal on the beach appeared to be, the Coal Point experts quickly determined that they’d found an ocean sunfish. And the specs seemed right, at first. For starters, the ocean sunfish is one of the weightiest species of bony fish on Earth, with some examples able to reach in excess of a whopping 2,200 pounds.
The ocean sunfish can be so large, in fact, that its height may even match its length. These astonishing beasts therefore stand in stark contrast to the sleek, slim fish we tend to imagine darting through rivers and oceans. And while the size and thickness of adult sunfish’s skin keeps them safe from many oceanic predators, they’re nevertheless at risk of being eaten by sharks, orcas and sea lions.
Then there are those ocean sunfish that wash up on the shores of beaches – often perplexing the people who eventually find their massive bodies. The Coal Point Oil Reserve team thought that they’d found one such specimen, too, in 2019. Upon further inspection, though, the specialists realized that they’d actually come across something else – something just as enormous.
It’s not particularly surprising, however, that there would be such a creature on the Coal Point Oil Reserve in Southern California. After all, the area – which is protected by the University of California to aid in educational pursuits – is home to a slew of unusual fauna. The land itself is important, too, as it’s one of the final illustrations of a coastal-strand environment.
Untouched dunes pile up along the coastline of the Coal Oil Point Reserve, and these play host to some noteworthy forms of plant life. The ecosystems that have developed here are also delicately balanced, although they’re certainly sufficient for the dune beetle and the western snowy plover – both of which can be seen near these sandy mounds.
The Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve additionally encompasses the Devereux Slough, which presents as a tidal lagoon during the colder parts of the year. In the summertime, though, much of the moisture evaporates and the area instead becomes defined by salt flats and saline ponds. And such changes create one-of-a-kind habitats for the creatures that end up here. This is also the case with the reserve’s grasslands and its stretches covered in coastal scrub – a community of plants native to California.
In total, the Coal Oil Point Reserve is known to host more than 1,000 different species of animals and plants. Yet experts believe that they’ve yet to reveal every single creature that dwells within the expanse of protected land. And it’s fortunate that the area is safeguarded, too, as many of the examples of flora and fauna here face habitat disintegration elsewhere.
Plus, the Coal Oil Point Reserve borders the Pacific Ocean, which means that there are plenty more noteworthy animals swimming in the nearby depths. Indeed, an intern who worked on the reserve happened upon one of those very critters in February 2019. From far away, though, the creature would’ve looked like a massive, gray blob.
And in a UC Santa Barbara press release, conservation specialist Jessica Nielsen was quoted as saying that the intern’s discovery had initially shocked her. Unlike most other animals that appear on sandy coastlines, you see, the creature had strange features. Of the find, Nielsen added, “This is certainly the most remarkable organism I have seen wash up on the beach in my four years at the reserve.”
In fact, it appears that evolutionary biologist Thomas Turner felt much the same way when he saw the gigantic creature in the sand. First, he caught a glimpse of the beast in images that Nielsen had uploaded to the Coal Oil Point Reserve’s Facebook account. Then he raced to the shoreline with his wife and child so that he could see the bizarre discovery for himself.
Speaking to CNN in February 2019, Turner said, “It’s the most unusual fish you’ve ever seen. It has no tail. All of its teeth are fused, so it doesn’t have any teeth. It’s just got this big round opening for a mouth.” On top of that, the creature was enormous. In fact, 6-foot-tall Turner stood with his arms outstretched to show just how large it was.
The fish was nearly 7 feet long, as it happens, and weighed more than 600 pounds. Owing to all that they could determine, then, the Coal Oil Point Reserve team classified the creature as an ocean sunfish – otherwise known as a common mola. Then the staff posted photos of the animal to a website called iNaturalist to allow other experts to weigh in. And, at first, a number of the commenters also suspected that the California-based team had found an ocean sunfish.
Luckily, though, someone looped Ralph Foster into the conversation. And from there, the South Australian Museum’s fish expert took a good, hard look at the photos of the supposed ocean sunfish. But not all was as it seemed. Yes, as Foster examined the creature, he suspected that it wasn’t actually among the species identified at all.
At least the skeptical Turner knew who he could turn to in search of answers. Ultimately, then, he fired off an email containing some images of the beached fish to a woman named Marianne Nyegaard. And as a marine scientist, Nyegaard was the perfect person to consult on such matters.
But the images initially did little to move Nyegaard. She recalled to CNN, “The pictures weren’t very clear. I was reluctant to settle on an identification because it was so far out of range.” So, she and Foster reached out to the Coal Oil Point Reserve team. If they could send over better photos, then the duo could be in a better position to draw conclusions.
Fortunately, Nielsen and Turner heeded Nyegaard and Foster’s call, as the California-based pair returned to the shoreline to snap more photos of the perplexing creature. By then, though, a couple of days had passed since the intern had spotted the blob on the sand. And in that time, the tides had seemingly washed it away.
Still, Nielsen and Turner held out hope that they could track down the supposed ocean sunfish once more. They therefore separated out for a search, starting a couple of miles apart and then walking towards each other. And, thankfully, the scientists’ plan worked, as they finally rediscovered the fish’s body not far from its original resting place.
Turner and Nielsen could examine the creature once more, then, and send detailed photos to Nyegaard and Foster. Yet when the Coal Oil Point duo took a closer look at the fish, they noticed a few features that proved its original classification had been wrong.
For example, where normal fish have tails, the ocean sunfish has what’s known as a clavus – a rounded protrusion that’s sometimes as wide as the entire body. As such, this feature acts more like a rudder than a powerful back fin. But while the beast on the California beach had a clavus, its shape didn’t match that seen on other ocean sunfish.
Snapping pictures of the unique fish delighted Nielsen, though, and she explained as much to UC Santa Barbara news site The Current. In February 2019, the conservation specialist said, “It really was exciting to collect the photos and samples, knowing that it could potentially be such an extraordinary sighting.”
And as it turned out, Nielsen hadn’t let her excitement build up in vain. You see, as soon as Nyegaard saw the clearer pictures, she knew that the California-based scientists had found something completely spectacular on their beach. Indeed, she later recounted to CNN, “I couldn’t believe it. I nearly fell out of my chair.”
Specifically, Nyegaard recognized that the sunfish was not of the common variety; rather, it was a hoodwinker sunfish. And she was ultimately the right person to note the subtle differences between the two. After all, in 2017 the marine scientist had discovered and named the hoodwinker species after years of trying to find it.
Plus, while scientists have long known about the existence of sunfish, it’s taken centuries for them to conclude that quite so many different varieties of the creature exist. The ocean sunfish – now known as the most prevalent of all the sunfish species – was discovered first in 1758.
Later, though, evidence started to emerge of a mysterious type of sunfish living around Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Chile – in other words, places that were all in the Southern hemisphere. In addition, a record from the turn of the 19th century claimed that one of the massive creatures had been spotted in Dutch waters. Nyegaard had plenty of places in which to look, then, when she decided to try and find this enigmatic animal.
But while Nyegaard researched the mystery fish, she realized that a lot of sightings had been misclassified. Sometimes, for instance, a common variety of the fish was deemed to be a rarer breed or vice versa. And that’s precisely how the hoodwinker had swum under the radar for so long: no one had taken the time to pinpoint its subtle diversity.
Nyegaard explained to CNN, “[The hoodwinker] had gone unnoticed because no one really realized it looked different. There’s a long history of confusion about the species in the sunfish family. This fish had managed to stay out of sight and out of everybody’s attention. It had been taken for Mola mola [the ocean sunfish], so it was hoodwinking us all.”
So, when the California-based team found a hoodwinker on their shores, it floored Nyegaard. Initially, you see, she had doubted claims that the species had somehow turned up in the U.S. Yet the pictures confirmed that yet another hoodwinker had actually surfaced, leaving Nyegaard in what she described to The Guardian as “a mix of disbelief and excitement.”
Much of that had to do with the hoodwinker’s location, as California is a fair distance from the fish’s usual haunts in the Southern Hemisphere. In March 2019 Nyegaard added to The Guardian, “That’s as far north as I have seen [the hoodwinker] that corresponds to a cold water current. For this fish to suddenly rock up in California is really exciting.”
So, how exactly did this specific hoodwinker end up over 4,000 miles away from its typical habitat? Well, Nyegaard revealed to CNN that this type of exploratory behavior wasn’t completely uncharacteristic for the hoodwinker. As she put it in her own words, “It’s not uncommon for sunfish to wander really far.”
And Nyegaard shared another pair of hypotheses with The Guardian, explaining, “It could just be a lost sunfish, or it could be [that] we don’t understand the distribution yet. Then, of course, there is the whole issue around climate change. We can’t conclude anything from just one specimen, but, of course, it is the question.”
Luckily, there is something that will potentially answer Nyegaard’s lingering questions: DNA. After the beached fish’s discovery, scientists from UC Santa Barbara gathered around to take samples of its genetic information. And if a match is established between the Californian beast and a New Zealand hoodwinker, then this would prove that the Coal Oil Point Reserve example had somehow branched off from its southern hemisphere counterparts.
Even if this turns out to have been the case, though, there would still be other questions to answer. Nyegaard explained further to CNN, saying, “We know [the hoodwinker] has the temperate distribution around here and off the coast of Chile. But then how did it cross the equator and turn up by you guys? It’s intriguing what made this fish cross the equator.”
In the meantime, everyone involved with the discovery of the California hoodwinker was seemingly pleased to be a part of such a momentous find. Nielsen told The Current, “Mola tecta [the hoodwinker] was just recently discovered, so there is still so much to learn about this species. I’m so glad that we could help these researchers make the final definitive ID.”
For fish scientist Foster, on the other hand, euphoria had kicked in long before the positive identification of the hoodwinker. As he explained to CNN, “To discover that it may be the first record in all of the Americas and only the second Northern Hemisphere record for the species… then I got very excited.”
Regardless, it will take time to determine if the California hoodwinker has ties to those in the Southern Hemisphere. And, as it happens, a very interesting individual will carry out the DNA tests. Geneticist Dr. Mette Nyegaard of Denmark’s Aarhus University will lead the charge, and her surname may have given away the fact that she’s Nyegaard’s sibling.
For now, scientists can just appreciate the fact that people on the internet helped them to identify an incredibly rare species. And the Coal Oil Point Reserve’s director Cris Sandoval certainly gave others credit when talking to The Current. He said, “Without attentive eyes, camera phones and social media, the Australian ichthyologists would have never learned that this fish had just been seen for the first time in the Northern Hemisphere.”
Sandoval also implied that this method of sharing and spreading scientific theory would be a thing of the future. Right now, of course, it’s still a relatively new concept. He explained, “This type of crowd-sourced science is helping biologists map species in ways we could not have imagined just a few years ago.”
Nyegaard and Turner celebrated the web for its aid in their triumph, too. Nyegaard, for instance, lauded iNaturalist for its bright and helpful community. She told CNN, “We are living in a changing world, and it’s important for scientists to get input from everybody in what they see. We can’t be out in the field every day all over the world.”
And then there was Turner, who was quick to point out that even he would’ve missed the hoodwinker without the assistance of the internet. He said, “I’m a professor. I’m a biologist. But I didn’t actually know what was special about this fish. I just posted a picture, and that connected me with the world’s expert and the discoverer of the species.” Now, he and the other specialists will have to wait and see what the tests say about the rare fish that brought all of them together.