Giant Ocean Sunfish Filmed in Gulf of Maine in Rare and Awesome Encounter

An ocean sunfish has been caught on film off the coast of Massachusetts in a rare sighting.

The video, which was shared on social media by marine touring company Cape Ann Whale Watch in Gloucester, Massachusetts, shows a white sunfish floating at the surface of the water in the Gulf of Maine.

"We got to see a Mola mola or ocean sunfish up close and personal as it made its way down the length of our boat," said Cape Ann Whale Watch in the caption of the video. "These odd looking creatures are the largest of the bony fish. We find them floating on the surface of the water where they look quite flat."

ocean sunfish
Stock image of an ocean sunfish off the coast of California. A whale-watching tour boat saw a sunbathing sunfish near Massachusetts. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Ocean sunfish, which can grow up to 14 feet across and reach weights of over 5,000 lbs, float on their side at the surface in order to warm themselves in the sun after diving in deeper waters. They do not have a tail, instead using their top and bottom fins. They were originally thought to not be capable of independent movement, floating only where the tides and current took them, but they are now known to be able to swim up to 16 miles per day. Despite their size and apparent lack of mobility, ocean sunfish have been known to breach, leaping up to 10 feet out of the water.

They usually feed on small fish, squid, crustaceans and jellyfish, and are prey in turn for sea lions, killer whales and sharks.

Their characteristic round body and unusually enormous size has made them a popular sight for seafarers, but they are rare. The ocean sunfish seen in the video is the most common of the sunfish species, but still an uncommon sight in the wild: they are listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list.

This rarity may be exacerbated by human actions, as they are a delicacy in some regions, including Taiwan and Japan, and are hunted for meat. They are also frequently killed as bycatch, accidentally getting caught up in drift swordfish fisheries, and even sometimes deliberately de-finned by fishermen viewing them as bait thieves, subsequently dying.

Ocean sunfish were originally not frequently seen in the Gulf of Maine off the U.S. east coast.

"They are more likely to be seen this time of year but certainly not something we see every day," Cape Ann Whale Watch told Newsweek.

However, according to the U.S. National Park Service, sightings of the gentle giants are currently on the rise. This may be as a result of increased ocean temperatures in the region as a result of climate change.

"The NASA Earth Observatory has shown that the Gulf of Maine is warming 99 percent faster than the global average, shifting many species' ranges further north," said the NPS in a statement. These higher temperatures make for a more temperate habitat for the sunfish, which generally prefer waters over 54° F, and also draw more of their prey species, including jellyfish.