Meeting With A Mola Mola

The open ocean is blue and clear. It is vast. Rick Rosenthal has spent most of his life trying to discover its secrets and it was amazing to free dive with him into the abyss. As part of the ‘squid team’ in the Azores Rick was charged with filming sperm whales. They are the ‘witness’ in our story because they, unlike humans, have seen giant squid in their natural habitat. In the Azores about an 1/8th of the sperm whale diet by mass is estimated to be giant squid. In the days of whaling, before 1986, cut up sperm whales revealed their stomach contents and sometimes had giant squid inside. Rick set out to learn what the sperm whales knew.

Every day on the sea is different. As Rick has often told me, 'the sea has a switch and sometimes it is on, and sometimes it is off'. Days, costly days, can be spent finding nothing, 'you have to pay your dues,' says Rick. He did. In just a few days the weather cleared and we had series of amazing encounters.

One evening, about 25 miles out, we were just about to go back. Rick suggested I should use his kayak and go and see what we could find. Mario, Rick’s Azorean teammate, propelled the amazing craft, by a bicycle-like mechanism, which flaps rowing blades below. Soon we were jetting over the sea, a slight swell raising and lowering our vision of a whale as we silently (and most importantly without distress for the animal) came closer. But at over a hundred yards away we saw its tail (the 'fluke’) raise into the air – the sign that the game was up – it had dived and disappeared, perhaps a mile below. It was then that we saw the gigantic fin above the surface. Could it be a shark ? This was probably not the time to remember that the world record for the king of all sharks, a 41.2 foot great white, comes from exactly this spot.

Tentatively I held the camera over the side of the kayak – a good compromise between getting the shot and not getting eaten. Then there were shouts from Rick on the main boat that I didn’t understand at first, 'John, John, it’s a mola mola, get in, get in!' A mola mola or sunfish is an entirely peaceful creature and is found in all the world’s seas. It is a gigantic ocean traveler and often comes to the surface where it rolls around for a while in the sun, I presume. Time slowed down, now I was in the water inches away from one of the largest fishes in the sea, perhaps even the largest bony fish on Earth. This was a beautiful monster, weighing over a ton, quite a bit longer than me, and the world record is about 9 feet. It seemed to blink as its eye swiveled to spot me going past. I blinked back; who wouldn’t at meeting such a giant?

Rick, nearly twenty years my senior and twenty times as fit had dived off the boat and was beside me. He swam for a while by the gentle giant and filmed it as it quietly turned and plummeted into the dark below, to go who knows where?

Now we know we are in the right place, an ocean crossroads where the giants come. And we are paying our dues to see a giant squid.

This film will be showing during Expedition Week on National Geographic Channel in November this year watch it to see what other amazing encounters the crew have in the Azores

John Ruthven producer for the giant squid-hunting film, pictured above in our Azorean production office

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