Friendly Giants Far Away From Home: Sightings of Sunfish in Baltic Startle Biologists

A total of four ocean sunfish have been spotted along Germany's Baltic coast over the last week, far away from their habitat in tropical and temperate waters. Biologists say the awkward, slow-moving and friendly giants are likely to have been swept in by storms.

German fisherman Jürgen Krieger shows of his most unusual catch, a 10 kilogram ocean sunfish which got lost in the Baltic. Zoom
dpa

German fisherman Jürgen Krieger shows of his most unusual catch, a 10 kilogram ocean sunfish which got lost in the Baltic.

Maritime experts and beachcombers have been puzzled by the appearance of several sunfish -- strange, disk-shaped creatures that can reach a length of up to 3.30 meters and a weight of over two tonnes -- along Germany's Baltic Sea coast in recent days, thousands of miles away from their normal habitat in tropical and temperate waters around the world.

A fisherman said on Saturday he had caught a 10-kilo, 60-centimeter-long sunfish out of the water near the island of Rügen. Last Wednesday, walkers found two sunfish, one 80 centimetres long and the other a full meter, lying dead on a beach east of the city of Kiel. A day before, passersby had spotted a smaller sunfish that still showed signs of life, and had pushed it back in the water.

Photo Gallery

4  Photos
Photo Gallery: Ocean Sunfish Get Lost in Baltic Sea
The fisherman, Jürgen Krieger, was going to eat his sunfish but the German Oceanographic Museum in Stralsund persuaded him to hand it over.

'Melancholy Dreamers'

Götz-Bodo Reinicke, a scientist at the the museum, said he didn't think global warming had driven the fish into the Baltic.

"They're not exactly high-performance swimmers. They're slow dreamers who peacefully drift around the seas and aren't known for lively enthusiasm," Reinicke told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"They're friendly creatures who look at you in a slightly melancholy way if you've got one in the aquarium. It's not that likely that they actively swam into the Baltic. They may well have been swept in from the North Sea by a sea swell caused by strong winds."

Sunfish, known in German as moonfish (Mola mola in Latin), are flat fish that have large fins on their back and underside. They eat soft matter such as jellyfish and small crabs and are harmless to humans.

"It's a very ungainly fish, I don't know what nature was thinking of when it came up with this one. It must have been playing a joke," Ilka Hasselmeier, a marine biologist at the University of Kiel's Research and Technology Centre, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"It can't shut it's mouth properly. I came across one off Hawaii once. They suck in the water through their teeth and blow it out again. It's their way of chewing food. They get so big that they could be dangerous if they wanted to. But they don't want to. They're totally harmless."

Sunfish occasionally get spotted in the North Sea, although that too is too cold for them, and it is very rare for them to get through the bottleneck of the Skagerrak and Kattegat straits into the Baltic.

"Once we've examined the fish we would like to preserve it for our museum," said Reinicke.

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