Friday, November 03, 2006

Ocean Sunfish: Among the Rarest of the Rarities

The ocean sunfish that was reported in Larchmont Harbor yesterday isn’t just rare, it’s almost unheard of in Long Island Sound. Four of the people I checked in with yesterday told me that, and the people Judy Silberstein interviewed for the Larchmont Gazette concurred.

Here’s what Judy found out:

A Mamaroneck resident fishing for sea bass in Larchmont Harbor early Wednesday morning encountered an immense sea creature with a shark-like dorsal fin. “I saw to my great surprise, what looked like a good-sized fin breaking the surface of the water, almost lazily slapping the water. My first thought was …shark, definitely not…wrong shape and moving too slow,” reported Bob Garry in an e-mail to the Gazette.
Was it a disoriented whale?
“It took a few more minutes before I got a good look and realized that it was a large (estimated 10-feet ) ocean sunfish,” Mr. Garry concluded.

Mr. Garry followed the creature in his fishing boat as it headed into Pirates Cove. Meanwhile, Liz Tremain sighted the fin from her kitchen window and came running with her children down their dock for a closer look.
“I spend tons and tons of time on the water and this is very unusual,” said Mr. Garry, who grew up in Larchmont and has spent much of his 48 years fishing here and elsewhere. He is familiar with the large, slow-moving fish and has seen them out by Block Island, but never this close to shore on the Long Island Sound. “They kind of cruise with the wind and the waves – I wouldn’t be surprised if in all this weather it wasn’t blown off course,” he surmised.

Among those I asked, Rod Christie (a friend who runs the Mianus River Gorge Preserve, fishes a lot, and is a good naturalist) made a similar speculation about the weather:

I’ve never heard of sunfish in the Sound. I would think it must have got lost and wandered in there in a storm or something. I don’t know if there have been other occurrences, but LIS does get some unusual things from time to time. They are normally such an open water fish that I would think it wants to escape the sound and can’t find its way out.

Sunfish are huge – in fact they are the biggest bony fish (sharks are bigger but they’re cartilaginous). Here’s what a couple of websites said about them:

The species appears in warm and temperate zones of all oceans. … Found on slopes adjacent to deep water where coming in for shelter or seeking cleaner fish. … The species often drifts at the surface while lying on its side, or it swims upright and close to the surface. The dorsal fin often projects above the water. … Recorded as the heaviest bony fish and as the one with the most eggs in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Their characteristic body shape is unique and is about the most peculiar sight you might encounter while diving.

Sphere correspondent Sam Wells, who lives now in south Texas but who spent a lot of time fishing in and around the Sound, told me he has seen sunfish near Block Island but never in the Sound. And Rick D’Amico, who is a marine biologist, said:

Back in the mid-70s, I saw an ocean sunfish off Asparagus Beach in Amagansett, in the Hamptons. This was within a few years after the movie, "Jaws," so there was a lot of hype about sharks. The lifeguards immediately chased people out of the water, as they didn't have the expertise to distinguish a shark fin from an ocean sunfish fin. It was rather humorous and reminiscent of one of the scenes in the film.

I've never seen an ocean sunfish in Long Island Sound. They're such poor swimmers that it would probably take quite a bit of help from currents to get them there, not that it couldn't happen, under the proper circumstances.

Although they’re found in oceans throughout the world, they don’t like cold water. Heather Medic, of the Mystic Aquarium, noted that the Gulf Stream brought a number of unusual species into our coastal waters this year – remember the Portuguese man-of-war? – and the sunfish were perhaps among them. She added:

It needs to leave soon or it won't make it.

No word from Larchmont though where this one was headed.


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