Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.

The agony of the mola-mola

  Indonesia: Sulawesi - July 2010

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 

It's only a fish, I know. No misplaced sentimentality. Nevertheless, it is sad to see a mola-mola in agony...

The mola-mola is this big sunfish that I had met in Nusa Penidanear Bali, in 2008. This summer, near the island of Bangka, in Sulawesi, I saw one again... in less pleasant circumstances.

An unusual catch

They are fishermen from the area who came to find us, between two dives.

Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.
Hookah fishermen, Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.

We were all a small group on the boat from Mimpi Indah. Indonesian side: our guide Jemi and a buddy of his, Rocky, who is also a dive guide, but who was just accompanying us that day; our captain and his deckhand.

Tourist side: four Italians on holiday; Clare, a young Scottish girl spending her dive-master and then me, the French girl who takes pictures underwater.

Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.
Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.

On the small outrigger boat approaching ours, fishermen with hookah. I spot the regulators and the small compressor. I didn't really manage to find out if they were just raising traps, nor what they usually fish, nor in what conditions...

Still, on that day, they made an unusual catch: a mola mola, !

Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.
Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.

A sick or injured moonfish

Clare can't believe it. She has never seen one. Neither have the Italians. We all open round eyes. Very excited, the guides and the captain climb on the small fishermen's boat, to see the beast more closely. And to take pictures with their cell phones!

The big fish has one glassy eye, and the other half-bloody. Sick, injured? It is still alive, but not very lively. It wiggles a little its big dorsal fin, around which the fishermen have wrapped a rope.

From the explanations I was able to obtain, it appears that the fishermen found this mola-mola on the surface. The fish was already in bad shape, they had no trouble catching it and attaching it to the hull of their boat.

They don't want to keep it, just show it to us. Besides, after chatting with our guys, they untie the ropes and release him.

The fish first floats on its side, instead of righting itself. It seems unable to swim. Then it regained some strength, sank below the surface, waved its dorsal fin, and moved away from the boat. But it struggles.

Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.
Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.

Two swimmers to the rescue

As a result, Jemi and Rocky put on their fins and mask and get into the water. They join the mola-mola and swim beside it, on both sides.

They are a bit far away. It is difficult, from the boat, to see if they are pushing or dragging it, to help it go further out to sea. After a long time, they turn around and come back to us. The captain started the engine of the boat to get them back.

Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.
Mola mola-. Bangka Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia. July 2010.

Once on board, they shake their heads. Their efforts made no difference. The mola-mola was having trouble swimming. It was unlikely to survive.

The animal returned to the sea, the two "rescuers" crowd around my pictures, taken with my little backup APN that I had the good idea to take with me (my 7D was in the box for underwater pictures, with the macro lens, therefore unusable to take "normal" pictures). Everyone has their own comments. I tell about the molas-molas of Nusa Lembongan.

I don't know if the Bangka sunfish survived. I doubt it, given its condition. It seemed to me to be in a rather agonizing state. But who knows? Nature can be amazingly resourceful.

The mola-mola dance

Small addition below, to console the saddest: the video of the mola-mola, alive and well this one, crossed in the waters of Nusa Penida, near Bali, in 2008 (and I then timidly performing the famous dance mola-mola, underwater choreography very popular at World Diving, excellent dive-shop on Nusa Lembongan) ...


  Indonesia: Sulawesi - July 2010

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Sad story... a sunfish is so beautiful and so rare... especially over there. We can only hope that the harsh laws of nature will save him...

  2. Beautiful story, who would have interested Hemingway!

    What is the origin of this strange name mola-mola? I prefer the more poetic moon-fish.

  3. @Manta: Beautiful and rare, to be sure... And when you're a diver, you also feel more concerned. In the past, I've also seen a few shark carcasses with severed fins floating on the surface in Togian, as well as dead turtles and small sharks caught in underwater nets in other places... In the end, humans do more damage than the "hard" law of nature.

    @Ysbilia: I foolishly thought that "mola-mola" was the local, Indonesian name for the sunfish. In fact, it's its Latin scientific name (since I couldn't ask Hemingway, I looked it up on Wikipedia: ). In common parlance, it's also known as a "mole", or "mole-fish".
    And that's binomial nomenclature (thanks again, Wikipedia: ), which led to the doubling of the name: mola-mola. "Eventually, the mole was classified with the "Mola ramsayi" in its own genus - Mola - of which it is the type species."

  4. Additional info for Ysbilia:

    The term "mole" probably derives from the Latin mola, meaning "millstone" or large stone. This species owes its name to its gray color, rough texture and round body. Another common name for the mole is "sunfish", a term found in Italian (pesce luna), Spanish (pez luna), Portuguese (Peixe-lua) and German (Mondfisch). The name derives from its round, moon-like shape.


  5. Superb, your video of the sunfish... beautiful moments... often seen on the surface, I haven't yet had the opportunity to come across the sunfish underwater 🙁

  6. Very sad story 😥
    Fortunately, we come across more sunfish alive than dead... Hopefully they won't become a miracle cure for imaginary illnesses like other rare species!