A team from South Africa's Two Oceans Aquarium pulled off a successful rescue mission on the weekend when an ocean sunfish became marooned in a dry dock at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.

While draining the dry dock last Saturday (March 2), workers noticed the mammoth fish flapping about in the shallows and quickly alerted authorities who called in the experts. Staff at the Two Oceans Aquarium have scooped their fair share of Mola molas out of the port’s canals and dry docks, as the ocean wanderers do sometimes stray into the shallows in search of food. The rescue team were well-prepped for the huge task at hand.

When the team arrived, the water level was still to high for them to reach the stranded fish. Fortunately, port authorities were willing to help by draining the water enough for the rescuers, and suspending dry-dock operations until the following morning when the rescue could be carried out.

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Ocean sunfish spend much of their time cruising in open water (their name is derived from their tendency to swim close to the surface as if sunbathing), so being trapped in shallow waters leaves them vulnerable to injury. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
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Two Oceans Aquarium Curator of Exhibits Claire Taylor readies a sample collection kit in preparation of the rescue. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
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The rescue team carefully manoeuvres the massive fish onto a stretcher. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium

Ocean sunfish can grow up to three metres in length and weigh over 2000 kilograms, so the biggest challenge facing rescuers was lifting the sizeable fish out of the dry dock and into open water. “We were able to wade out to the sunfish and secure it to a large stretcher for rescue,” the team wrote in a blog post. “For a sunfish this large we knew that there would be no way to rescue it without the use of a large crane.”

The dock team offered their services and a crane operator hoisted the sunfish-laden stretcher out of the dry dock and into the harbour basin. To add to the growing body of research on these charismatic creatures, Two Oceans Aquarium Technical Specialist Vince Calder and Curator of Exhibits Claire Taylor collected fin clippings, DNA samples, size measurements and a collection of skin parasites (sunfish can be home to as many as 40 different species at once!) before releasing the fish.

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"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
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The team taking measurements before release. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
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Although a crane was required to move this hefty sunfish, it is still relatively small in comparison to others from the same species. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium

To ensure that the sunfish found its way back to deeper waters, Taylor swam alongside the animal until it regained strength and looked set to sail to safety. Despite being trapped in shallow waters for some time, the sunfish appeared in “near-perfect condition”.

“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,” says Two Oceans Aquarium Curator Maryke Musson.

All five known species of sunfish have been spotted in Cape Town waters, however, the ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is by far the most commonly seen. In the summer months, these ocean giants regularly stray into local harbours, and they sometimes run into trouble. "They start appearing in October/November and are often sighted right through to May/June the following year. Unfortunately they are often injured or disorientated," explains the aquarium.

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Ready for release! Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
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Curator of Exhibits Claire Taylor swims with the sunfish until it is out of shallow water. Credit: Maryke Musson/Two Oceans Aquarium
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