On Saturday 2 March, the Robinson Dry Dock in the V&A Waterfront was drained and by late afternoon the Transnet team noticed a large ocean sunfish trapped in the now shallow water. The Cape Town Port Authority contacted the Two Oceans Aquarium immediately to arrange a rescue, but at the time the water level was still too high to allow access to the sunfish. Transnet were gracious, draining the water enough for the rescuers, and then suspending drydock operations until the next morning when the rescue would take place.

Large ocean sunfish are adapted to open water, so being trapped in shallow, confined spaces leaves them prone to injury. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium

The next day, on the morning on World Wildlife Day, 3 March, our small rescue team assembled and found the sunfish at the end of the drydock furthest from the caisson (the gate of the drydock), where the water is a bit deeper. We were able to wade out to the sunfish and secure it to a large stretcher for rescue.

“I must say, it was amazing - a huge collaborative effort, even though it was such a small team these were people who really wanted to assist and save this sunfish. It could easily have been a little piece of dried up sunfish biltong in the drydock this morning if not for everyone involved. What a happy Sunday!” – Maryke Musson, Two Oceans Aquarium Curator

Two Oceans Aquarium Curator of Exhibits Claire Taylor readies a sample collection kit in preparation of the rescue. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
Carefully, the team manoeuvres the sunfish onto a stretcher, ready to be hoisted out by crane. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium

For a sunfish this large we knew that there would be no way to rescue it without the use of a large crane. Fortunately, the dry dock team were able to organise a crane operator for the rescue, and we were able to lift the sunfish out of the dry dock and into the harbour basin in the V&A Waterfront.

Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
The crane was large enough that we were able to hoist the sunfish directly into the open harbour basin. Normally, we would need many hands to carry the stretcher this last leg. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium

Before release, Two Oceans Aquarium Technical Specialist Vince Calder and Curator of Exhibits Claire Taylor took DNA samples, a small fin clipping, size measurements and also cleared and sampled the skin parasites living on the ocean sunfish - all of which will contribute to global research about these long-distance ocean wanderers.

Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
It is amazing to think that even a "large" ocean sunfish like this is still very small compared to the size it will eventually grow to. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium

Claire Taylor then swam along with the sunfish out beyond the swinging bridge at Clocktower, to give it the best chance of finding its way out into the open ocean again. As she swam along with it she was able to note that it regained much of its strength and appeared to be in near-perfect condition, despite being trapped in shallow waters for some time.

Time to go! Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
Claire Taylor swims with the sunfish until it is out of the shallower, more confined parts of the harbour. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
As they swam towards the open ocean, Claire Taylor noted that the sunfish regained much of its vigour - it was certainly a healthy fish! Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium

We are very happy with the condition that the sunfish was in, and must commend the quick action of the Transnet and Cape Town Port Authority team in acting swiftly to save this ocean sunfish, particularly Johan and Cyril who manage the dry dock and Andrew the crane operator. Large working ports like Cape Town are a major interface between the natural and man-made world, and it is a pleasure to be able to work in collaboration with organisations that see the value in conserving our ocean treasures.

Our team will continue monitoring the area to ensure that the sunfish does not become trapped elsewhere in the harbour. Members of the public are encouraged to contact the Aquarium on +27 (0)21 418 3823 or on any of our social media channels to report sightings of distressed animals in the V&A Waterfront area - or just to ask for more information.

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