Among the more bizarre-looking visitors to California waters this summer are Mola molas, or ocean sunfish, which are being seen in unusually high numbers. But it’s a stunning photograph of one of these gentle giants that appears to be getting the most attention. The image, captured off San Diego by Daniel Botelho, became an instant hit after being posted last week on his Facebook page.

“It got 1,000 ‘likes’ in 36 hours,” said Botelho, an award-winning photojournalist who specializes in underwater photography. Through Monday the number of likes and shares beneath had grown to 1,375 and 1,237, respectively.

There was no back story provided but Botelho, when reached via email, explained that he captured this image in July of 2010, while on a blue whale photography mission. But he somehow placed it in a folder of non-used images and did not discover it until recently, while planning another blue whale odyssey.

The Facebook post was the first time the image had been published. “It is so funny, I wasted that image and after two years I found it, posted it, and it becomes viral,” Botelho said.

Though molas are docile and appear sluggish, they’re difficult to photograph because they’re deceivingly swift and do not generally tolerate divers who try to get close.

“There were more than five in the same spot but once I got in the water, as stealthily as I could, they all went out fast,” Botelho explained. “But one specific fish stopped to check what I was, and God knows why the fish decided to follow me. People in the boat said it seemed like a dog following his owner.”

The photographer in the image had hoped to photograph Botelho next to the sunfish but instead he became the subject to lend perspective as to how large and moon-like molas can be.

The sunfish can measure 14 feet and weigh as much as 5,000 pounds. They’re found in tropical and temperate oceans. With their large bodies, truncated tails, tiny mouths, and huge eyes, they look like something not entirely whole and not of this world.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, in a species description, states: “Ocean sunfish, or molas, look like the invention of a mad scientist.”

They feed primarily on jellies but will also eat squid and small fish. Large numbers of jellies and gelatinous creatures called salps this summer may help to explain an increase in sightings made by California boaters.

— Image is courtesy of Daniel Botelho for use with this story only, and is protected by copyright laws

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