On the morning of 30 January 2018, we released the Two Oceans Aquarium's resident ocean sunfish (Mola mola), which we had come to call Holy Moly, in the ocean off Robben Island.

Holy Moly was named because of the hole in its bottom lip, a scar from being snagged by a longline fishing cable - a fate that kills hundreds of thousands of ocean sunfish as bycatch every year. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

The sunfish was rescued by Aquarium staff in December, after it was discovered trapped in the nearby V&A Waterfront harbour. The harbour had been particularly busy during the summer, and this young sunfish likely became disorientated. It had been observed in the marina for a number of days and we were concerned that it was distressed and at risk of being injured by a boat.

Over the past month, the sunfish has been a resident of the Predator Exhibit, a gentle giant among the sharks and giant kob that it came to coexist with.

The sunfish takes its last lap of the Predator Exhibit - this is going to be a the last time that the ragged-tooth sharks see such an unusual animal for a while. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

The release

Early on Tuesday morning, the Aquarium's dive team removed the ocean sunfish from the Predator Exhibit.

Our team of divers entered the exhibit, guiding the sunfish to the medical pool and keeping a lookout for curious sharks. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

At the surface, our team was ready to strap the sunfish into a protective harness and move it quickly into the water of the holding tank on our boat.

Once in the medical pool, the sunfish was gently strapped into a harness to be carried to the boat. Care was taken not to damage the sunfish's protective mucus layer. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.
It takes an army to carry a sunfish - and this is still a tiny one! They can grow up to three tons! Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

The sunfish was quickly carried out of the Aquarium and to our boat moored outside. On the boat is a small holding tank, with life support systems designed to keep fish alive and comfortable during transport. A DNA sample was taken which will be used to further international research collaboration on the lives and conservation of ocean sunfish.

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.
Loaded into the boat Aquarium 1, aquarists Simon and Leigh keep the sunfish calm and ensure it receives enough oxygen. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

Finally the boat was on the move! It was only a short 20 minute ride to the release location near Robben Island, but the seas were a little choppy and we took care to ensure that the sunfish stayed calm and did not bump the sides of the tank.

The seas were a bit rough, but we were careful to protect this majestic animal from bumping the sides of the holding pool. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

Finally at the release site, we took a few moments to adjust the water temperature in the holding tank to be in line with that of the surrounding ocean. The weather was overcast, the waters were murky - perfect conditions for a sunfish to find its bearings after this stressful process.

We arrived at the release site - time to lift this heavy little fish out! Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.
Ready to go, good luck Holy Moly! Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

And off it goes! Good luck little one!

Video by Simon Leigh.

Why has it been released now?

The ocean sunfish has recovered well since we rescued it in December. We cleared it of parasites and ensured that it was not dehydrated or suffering any other underlying ailment. We had since seen an increase in the sunfish's appetite, and the energy and curiousity with which it explored the Predator Exhibit, and were confident that it was in good health.

After careful consideration of Holy Moly's behaviour, we decided that it was time for it to resume life back in the ocean. Even in the single month that the sunfish was at the Aquarium, it has grown significantly - well on its way to becoming a true giant of the ocean. We look forward to applying the lessons we have learned from Holy Moly to other sunfish that come into our care.

Although Holy Moly interacted peacefully with our divers and her exhibit-mates, we know that it is time for it to move on. Photo by Cleeve Robertson.

Our relationship with sunfish

The Aquarium is committed to ensuring the conservation and wellbeing of all ocean denizens - including the large and fabulous ocean sunfish, a relationship that goes back to when our doors first opened in 1995. Holy Moly was not the first sunfish to find a temporary home in our exhibits, and we are grateful that we've had another incredible opportunity to learn and grow alongside this ocean ambassador.

Our work with ocean sunfish goes far beyond the rare visitors to our exhibits - we actively rescue stranded sunfish in the Cape Town area. For example, last August, we helped a sunfish fly to freedom after becoming trapped in a drydock in the V&A Waterfront, and in 2015 we rescued two giant sunfish after becoming stranded in a drained harbour drydock. 

Why do we care? And why should you? Ocean sunfish as listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN - the same classification as polar bears, pandas and cheetahs. In South Africa alone, over 340 000 are killed as bycatch in a year, yet few people have even heard of them. For this reason, we are incredibly glad that this little Mola mola has made such an impact on everyone that had the opportunity to see it at the Aquarium. Swim safe our magnificent ocean ambassador!

Learn more about this amazing animal: Their lifestyles, weird looks, threats faced and relationships with humans.

Your favourite Holy Moly Mola mola moments:

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