See the Rare, 2,000-Pound Hoodwinker Sunfish That Washed Ashore in Oregon

The species was only described in 2017 after “hiding in plain sight” for nearly three centuries

Giant dead fish on the beach next to a pickup truck
The behemoth carcass has attracted lots of curious onlookers to Gearhart Beach. Seaside Aquarium via Facebook

Any time a seven-foot-long, 2,000-pound fish washes ashore, it’s a noteworthy occurrence. But in Oregon last week, marine biologists were in for an even bigger surprise when they took samples of a giant fish carcass found on the beach and realized it belonged to a species that was discovered only recently.

Initially, researchers thought the huge creature spotted on Gearhart Beach was a common ocean sunfish (Mola mola). But they later realized they had something much more special on their hands: a rare hoodwinker sunfish that was first described in 2017.

The behemoth creature was found on June 3 in the coastal town of Gearhart, Oregon, located roughly 80 miles northwest of Portland, according to a Facebook post from Seaside Aquarium. Word quickly spread on social media, and people flocked to the beach to see the unusual specimen.

Eventually, New Zealand-based researcher Marianne Nyegaard heard about the big fish. After looking at the photographs online, she determined it probably wasn’t a common ocean sunfish at all, but rather, a hoodwinker sunfish—a species her team discovered seven years ago.

She reached out to staff at Seaside Aquarium, located in the nearby town of Seaside, Oregon, and asked if they would take tissue samples and measurements. They happily obliged, and sure enough, the carcass belonged to a hoodwinker.

Nyegaard happened to be visiting Seattle at the time and decided to take a little detour to see the fish in person. She believes it may be the largest specimen ever sampled, according to the aquarium.

“As soon as we could, we just jumped in the car and drove down to see it,” Nyegaard tells NBC News’ Elysee Barakett. “It was a fantastic coincidence. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

It’s not clear how the humongous fish ended up on the beach in Oregon. However, it may help challenge the theory that hoodwinkers primarily inhabit the warm waters of the Southern Hemisphere. Other hoodwinkers have “recently washed ashore in California and one as far north as Alaska,” per the aquarium’s post.

“This fish, hiding in plain sight, has most likely been seen/washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest before but was mistaken for the more common Mola mola,” according to the aquarium.

Hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) have been fooling people for centuries, ever since the common sunfish was first identified in 1758. Whether intentional or not, the fish’s trickster-like behavior made it easy to name: Tecta comes from the Latin word tectus, which means hidden or disguised.

“This species evaded discovery for nearly three centuries, despite the keen interest among early sunfish taxonomists and the continued attention these curious fish receive,” Nyegaard and her co-authors wrote in 2017.

At first glance, hoodwinker sunfish and common sunfish look similar. But upon closer inspection, it’s easy to distinguish between the two. Hoodwinkers have totally smooth skin, while common sunfish have wrinkles. The hoodwinker’s tail flap is divided into two parts that can move independently of one another, while the common sunfish’s tail flap is made up of just one piece with bony formations, per NBC News.

The Oregon hoodwinker was likely to remain on the beach for several days, because its thick skin can be difficult for scavengers to break through. That provided curious onlookers time to go see it—and, ideally, learn something new about the natural world.

“If it gets people off their phones, out of their basements, onto the beach, it’s a great thing,” says Keith Chandler, general manager of Seaside Aquarium, to the Washington Post’s Jonathan Edwards.

Sunfish have long captivated humans. These huge creatures dive deep to hunt, but they must return to the surface to warm up in the sun. While floating at the top of the water, they opportunistically grab jellyfish and other types of prey. This “sunbathing” behavior inspired the fish’s common name. Their scientific name mola derives from the Latin word for “millstone,” which is a nod to their round and stone-like shape.

When spotted near the surface, sunfish are often mistaken for sharks—but these hulky creatures are mostly harmless. They’re also awkward swimmers that can’t fully close their small mouths.

In October 2022, a bump-head sunfish (Mola alexandrini) previously found near the Azores archipelago weighed in at a whopping 6,050 pounds, or roughly the same size as a small SUV, making it likely the heaviest bony fish on record.

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