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Diving with the Ocean Sunfish or Mola Mola



Each year, between August and November, the Ocean Sunfish or Mola Mola come to the clean, clear waters off the East Coast of Bali near the island of Nusa Penida to be cleaned and groomed.

Diving with them gives you the adrenaline rush of diving with Great Whites in the Cape but without the protection of a cage. However, the danger comes not from the fish but from the sea itself.

These are volcanic islands, and the sea bed is often hundreds of metres below. The cleaner stations are in Crystal Bay and Manta Point, which are both subject to tidal fluctuations and unpredictable current changes, with vertical walls where the swirling currents can drag a diver down before he can react. To dive there at all you should always take an experienced guide. This is diving at its most unpredictable, and all the early diver training skills come into play. This is where things can go wrong and you have to be very aware of the dangers.

As always with diving, nobody can guarantee a sighting of anything in nature. In Mola Mola season the whole Balinese diving community is focused on the sightings. The sunfish don’t always come and only the best dive guides can predict with any certainty where they will be. Factors that play a role are tides, currents and of course the unpredictable whimsy of large marine animals.

The sea was rough, and we only kitted up once we had arrived at Nusa Penida. There we were given a full briefing on how to behave around the Mola Mola. I felt heavily over-weighted, as though I had an extra 5kg on my weight belt, and inflated my BC a little. Then I realized it was not weight, it was current, and the downward pull was so strong that I had to fin like hell just to stay in one place. At last we reached the cleaner station, and there he was, massive, primitive, his vestigial tail already being picked at by banner fish. Our first Mola Mola.

I slowly circled round the animal, filming as I went. Once I had reached the other side of him the cameras kicked in and the water was filled with photographers with their apertures wide open and their shutter speeds on slow… taking hundreds of pictures of this amazing creature.

He obligingly hung for 12 minutes while all around him the cameras went ballistic, bony mouth half open, hard round tongue visible, gulping and gasping with his huge round eyes staring into the deep, apparently oblivious of the divers all around him. The banner fish swarmed around him, picking off parasites, burrowing into wounds, sucking up the debris. Then he seemed to get bored, turned his back on us and with a leisurely flick of his fins, vanished into the distance.

In the days that followed we explored several more dive sites fruitlessly looking for another Sunfish, and our persistence was eventually rewarded.

We could not even enter Crystal Bay as the tide was low, the currents dangerously unpredictable, and Parman felt we should try Manta Point again; at least we could look at the pelagic mantas if nothing else.

This time we were alone, there were no other photographers, and we had no expectation of seeing anything, when suddenly out of the misty blue a Mola Mola arrived, totally unselfconscious, posing for photography… and then another arrived, also relaxed, ready for a grooming.

The Ocean Sunfish are bony fish, with large lateral fins like a whale, but they hang vertically in water like blaasops, and they used to be classified scientifically as Molidae until fairly recently.

Viewed side on, they are huge, like oval elephants, but from behind they are almost 2 dimensional, like a playing card. They seem to get a lot of parasites in their vestigial tails, which are not actually tails at all, but in fact a fusion of their dorsal and anal fins to make a sort of rudder, called a caudus. This is flat, rounded and scalloped, a bit like pie crust. There are 12 fin rays in the caudus and it is here that the parasites lodge. It is because of this that Mola Mola need help at cleaner stations.

They are by far the world’s most prolific egg laying fish. Their eggs scatter over vast areas, and the baby sunfish look a little like puffer fish, and bear little resemblance to their bizarre parents in their early years. They are born with a tail fin, which eventually fuses with maturity and have all the normal bony spines characteristic of the puffer fish or blaasop. They swim in schools to start with, only becoming solitary as they reach sexual maturity.

The adults are huge animals, growing up to 3 metres across and weighing around a ton, making them the largest bony fish in the ocean.

So how do they sustain this huge bulk? They mainly eat jelly fish, plankton, small fish and zooplankton. When you compare the small round mouth of the Mola Mola with the massive mouth of a whale shark, they must spend most of their time trying to ingest enough food to sustain this bulk. They suck water and food in through the mouth and their teeth have fused into a beak-like structure, while they have crushing teeth at the back of the throat that enable them to tear crustateans into smaller bits.

Speculation is that they are extremely vulnerable to the cold, as they are sometimes seen lying near the surface on their sides looking dead. The scientists think this is to expose as much of their bulk as possible to the sun and certainly they cannot survive cold oceans, preferring temperatures of over 10 degrees. This makes finding enough food difficult, as zoo plankton and jellies mainly occur where there is a cold upwelling or current flooding in from the colder depths of the ocean. To obtain sufficient food it is thought they may also have to dive down to great depths, as side-catch Mola Mola deaths have revealed stomach contents from vegetation and shrimps living at depths below 200 metres. Their cumbersome structure makes travel fairly slow and by swishing the dorsal and ventral fins they can only travel at a rate of up to 26 km a day.

Diving with this animal was an absolute revelation and a huge privilege. It was really worth the long flight, the tedious hours waiting for planes, the interminable boat rides, braving the dangerous currents and staying calm when all the early diver training was tested to its limit, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Words: Jill Holloway

Pics: David Holloway

Copyright: Ocean Spirit

Jill Holloway lives in Mauritius and at Sodwana Bay Isimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa. A PADI qualified Nitrox diver with over 1,500 dives, she is a passionate observer and preserver of the marine environment, and has a database of over 35,000 fish pics and hundreds of Gopro videos on fish behaviour, which she shares with her readers.

Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 1



Over the next seven days, join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy as we publish a Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

Deptherapy made the very brave decision to book an expedition to our home in Egypt as soon as Roots Red Sea received their certificate from the Egyptian Authorities that the camp and dive centre was COVID secure. Roots is one of very few resorts to receive a certificate from the Egyptian Government.

We arrived in Roots the day after they re-opened.

Getting together an expedition was a major task. Very few Approved Medical Examiners’ of Divers or Dive Referees are conducting consultations at the moment. Availability of beneficiaries and the requirement to quarantine on return from Egypt affected the number of beneficiaries available.

There was also a requirement to pass a COVID PCR virus test within 72 hours of travelling.

We had decided on a small expedition and on the day of travel we had six flying to Egypt.  Unfortunately, Chris Middleton had to drop out the day before we travelled after emergency wisdom tooth surgery.

Our group comprised of Richard Cullen, Michael Hawley, Tom Oates, Tom Swarbrick, Keiron Bradbury and Corey Goodson.  Keiron was undertaking his RAID Master Rescue Course and, as it turned out, Corey was undertaking the RAID Open Water 20 course.

A deserted Gatwick Airport at 0900 on 10 October

Our outbound flight was before midday on Saturday 10 October and I must admit we were all shocked at how deserted was.  Checking in with easyJet took minutes and when we boarded the plane, we found it less than half full.

Corey is a paraplegic since a car accident two years ago while he was training prior to joining the Royal Anglian Regiment.  Corey has no sensation below the waist and is unable to use his legs.  The cabin crew on our flight were quite amazed to see the two Toms and Michael lift him from his wheelchair and place him in his seat for the flight.

Mask protocols were strictly observed by the team, the flight was uneventful, and the easyJet Cabin Crew superb. We also took a digital thermometer to check temperatures prior to flying.

Corey having a pre-flight temperature check

Hurghada Airport was very quiet and we moved through Immigration and collected our baggage in very quick time.

Two things to note:  If you are travelling to Hurghada you need to complete a COVID declaration for the Egyptian Authorities. If not, you have to fill out the rather lengthy form when you arrive.  You can undertake a COVID test on arrival at Hurghada Airport but the queues are long.  It costs much less than the tests we had done in the UK – BUT – you are required to be quarantined at your hotel until the test result comes through.  This means two days with no access to resort facilities.  If the test comes back as positive you have at least two weeks being confined to your room.

COVID guidelines

Transport to Roots was, as ever, on hand and we were soon at the camp and being briefed about the COVID arrangements.  A lot of work has been put in place to make Roots COVID compliant – and all at considerable expense.

None of the usual hugs with the Roots team and you have your temperature checked every morning and every time you return from the dive centre.  Your dive kit is sterilised every night ready for the next day’s diving.

Sterilised Dive Kit

We all felt very COVID secure.

Check back for tomorrow’s Blog and our first day diving…

Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at

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And the winner of our TUSA Paragon S Mask competition is…



We’d like to say a big thank you to all of you who entered our competition to win a TUSA Paragon S Mask from our good friends at CPS Partnership!

As usual, lots of you entered… but there can, of course, be only one winner!

And that winner is…

  • Lee Evans from the UK.

Congratulations Lee – your prize will be on its way to you soon!

Not a winner this time? Don’t worry – there are plenty of other competitions running on right now. To see what other awesome prizes you could be in with a chance of winning, click here!

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