A pair of paddle boarders could barely contain their glee as a gentle sea giant swam between them this month in the ocean near Laguna Beach, California.
“OK, that might be the biggest sunfish I’ve ever seen,” Rich German proclaimed in a video of the encounter. He is heard laughing and then says, “It’s as big as your board."
German, 52, an ocean enthusiast and environmental activist, said he spotted the sunfish, also known as Mola mola, while he was paddling with his friend Matt Wheaton on Dec. 2.
German, of Laguna Beach, founded the nonprofit Project O to preserve the ocean and the life within it. He also hosts a podcast called Our Epic Ocean.
He said he's had many encounters with sea life aboard a paddleboard, including Earth's largest animal, the blue whale. He has also witnessed orcas, gray whales and dolphins in their natural habitats.
The friendly chance meeting with the sunfish was unexpected for many reasons, German said.
The fish are usually not seen for miles off the coastline. German was only about 200 yards from the coast when he crossed paths with the Mola mola. Its size surprised him.
"The fact it was so big makes it super unique," German said. "My hope for all of this exposure is more people will fall in love with the ocean and that will do more to protect the ocean."
German said it also struck him that the sunfish was navigating within a 6-mile stretch of coastline where it’s against the law to fish.
“I just thought it was kind of neat this fish is hanging out in an area where it’s totally protected and safe,” he said. “We hung out with it for probably 30 minutes. Eventually, it just dropped down below the surface.”
German told NBC San Diego, “This story has gone viral, and it’s cool that people love the ocean, they love the life that lives in the ocean, especially unique things like this."
Mola mola, which are harmless to people, are known to be curious, often approaching divers, according to National Geographic. The sunfish is an omnivore that can measure 14 feet vertically and 10 feet horizontally. Weighing nearly 5,000 pounds, it is the heaviest of all the bony fish, according to National Geographic.
The fish’s awkward appearance, according to National Geographic, can partly be attributed to its back fin. Mola mola are born with a back fin, but it never grows. Instead, it folds into itself as the creature matures, creating a rounded rudder that gives the animal a “bullet-like shape,” National Geographic said.
German’s close encounter with a sunfish isn’t the first time the sea creatures have stirred up viral waves.
An expletive-filled video of two Massachusetts men who spotted a sunfish in the waters of Boston Harbor in 2015 also went viral, when one of the men mistakenly referred to the full-figured fish as a "baby whale," NBC Boston reported.