Driving along the beaches of southern Australia counts as just another day at the office for Steven Jones – the supervisor of an area fishing crew. After all, his daily treks along the coastline mean that he often catches glimpses of oceanic wildlife. Sometimes the fauna swims by him, while other times it has somehow washed ashore. But on one day in March 2019, Jones came across a specimen that all but beggared belief.
Jones and his team were journeying through Coorong National Park at the time. Initially, the fishermen thought the object was an enormous section of driftwood that had somehow appeared on the beach. That would actually be a stunning enough feat for a trunk or a branch. But as the crew got closer to the figure, they realized that it hadn’t come from a tree at all.
Jones subsequently sent a picture to his partner, Linette Grzelak, to show her the mysterious thing that had washed ashore. Grzelak later told Live Science that, along with the photo, Jones had also sent a description of what he’d discovered. “[He] said it was extremely heavy, and [it] felt hard and leathery like a rhinoceros,” she reported.
But while Grzelak couldn’t help Jones to determine what he had found, the experts could. Jones actually sought the advice of a specialist crowdsourcing site – wherein scientific researchers help one another to identify unknown species. Once the fisherman had shared his photo, then, he received a multitude of hits that confirmed the identity of the unexpected creature he had found in the sand.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that this unusual discovery should come out of Australia, though. As an island nation, Australia, of course, has just the Indian Ocean to the west and the Pacific Ocean around its eastern half. Because of the country’s watery surroundings, then, its marine habitats have had much more time to flourish than in other places. And this has made the land down under into an incubator for unique species. It also houses super-sized versions of fish known around the world.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Australia’s coral reefs – which have had thousands of years to root themselves and diversify their ecosystems. In a number of coral reefs, for instance, you could see feather stars among the multitude of creatures and foliage. And at first glance, these marine animals might look like the baddies in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.
Feather stars are mobile creatures, too; they can swim or even walk from location to location. And considering how much the animals resemble the colorful flora within a coral reef, it could be an unnerving sight to see a feather star sauntering toward you as you swim or scuba.
Handfish also count as another Australian oddity. As their name implies, these undersea creatures have front fins that have separated finger-like strands – much like hands. The marine fish come in a slew of different colors, too. But one thing unites all handfish: they’re too slow to catch their prey. They consequently attract eats using fishing-rod-type lures atop their heads.
Elsewhere, the ox-eyed oreo kind of resemble the famous cookies with their chocolatey brown tops and cream-colored bellies. But the Australia-based fish actually get their shortened moniker from their scientific name: Oreosoma atlanticum. The first of those words translates to “mountain body.” And, as you can see from the peaks on the oreos’ bellies, it becomes clear how they earned that label.
As well as playing home to these wacky undersea animals, though, Australia also provides a habitat for a treasure trove of extra-large fish. Yet, as Lonely Planet put it, these super-sized catches are harder to come by. “On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, anyone with a snorkeling mask can find Nemo. But it takes a tough cookie to land a legend,” the guide wrote in 2014.
For instance, giant black marlins stand among the most sought-after catches in all of Australia’s oceans. Fishermen have put up hours-long battles just to catch one, in fact. But that’s not too surprising considering that marlins can grow to up to 1,600 pounds. And the bony fish can also swim at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour – making them tough to capture.
Similarly, swordfish attract plenty of accomplished fishermen to the land down under. According to Australia.com, in fact, swordfish are “game fishing’s greatest prize.” Most of these expeditions therefore hone in on specific areas, including southern Queensland and Tasmania, where experts drop bait into deep waters to catch sometimes record-smashing big fish.
Not all of Australia’s biggest fish can be caught with such methods, though. In fact, the largest fish of them all – not only in the island nation, but in the world – happens to dwell in the country’s temperate waters. It’s called the whale shark; and while it typically measures in at 32 feet long and tips the scales at 20,000 pounds, the largest specimen ever found had an astonishing length of 62 feet.
Now the whale shark doesn’t feast on all of the ocean’s creatures to maintain its extra-large size and weight. The creature in fact gets its name from its method of filter-feeding, which is similar to that of a baleen whale. These sharks mostly eat small fish and plankton, you see. And humans can and do safely swim with them when they appear in Australia for seasonal feedings.
Scientists have actually only discovered three types of sharks that rely on this filtration method to eat. The smallest of the bunch, the megamouth shark, typically eludes human contact. Fewer than 100 of them have ever been seen or caught since the species’ discovery in 1976, in fact.
Yet the third-ever megamouth shark found just so happened to wash up on the shores of Mandurah, Western Australia, more than 30 years ago. According to the Western Australia Museum, the discovery “caused a sensation in Perth” – but the curator seemingly knew just what to do. Yes, he had the shark frozen and then placed in formalin to preserve it for years to come.
So, in short, the oceans surrounding Australia contain a multitude of wonders and mysteries. And question marks continue to arise even today – especially when a strange figure, such as the megamouth shark, washes ashore and leaves onlookers scratching their heads. This very situation actually occurred as recently as March 16, 2019.
At that time, as we’ve seen, Steven Jones had settled into another day of work as the supervisor of a cockle-fishing team. Jones actually often drove through Coorong National Park in South Australia on his way to gather the edible mollusks. That’s because this protected natural area, which sits about 100 miles outside of Adelaide, houses a large lagoon.
Jones’ daily jaunts regularly see him face-to-face with creatures that live in the underwater ecosystem, in fact. His partner, Linette Grzelak, told Live Science that he often shared pictures of the wildlife he observed too. “I’m always getting sent photos of what they find, but it’s mostly sharks and seals,” she said.
Then came Jones’ March 2019 drive through Coorong National Park. So, as he and his crew made their way down the South Australian beach, they noticed what they thought was an enormous piece of driftwood sitting on the sand. But as the fishermen got closer to the object, they realized that it couldn’t be a chunk of tree. The figure had eyes and a mouth, after all.
Jones didn’t simply observe the strange creature, though. Instead, he reached out and touched the being that laid lifelessly on the sand. Then he texted Grzelak an image of it and reportedly related that “it was extremely heavy, and the skin felt hard and leathery like a rhinoceros.”
In fact, Jones estimated that the bony, heavy creature measured in at about six feet in length. Yet although Jones is presumably familiar with much of the undersea species in the area, the fishermen couldn’t identify what they had found. Grzelak didn’t have the slightest idea of what her partner had sent her a photo of, either.
“I got sent the [photo] and thought it was fake. I had no idea what it was,” Grzelak said. So, without any answers, Jones and his crew decided to enlist the help of experts. They subsequently turned to the website iNaturalist – where scientists pool their collective knowledge to identify strange species. And that’s when they got their answer.
The experts agreed that the fishermen had actually stumbled upon an ocean sunfish. As is apparent right away, this particular species can grow to enormous sizes; there’s a reason they earn the title of the heaviest bony fish on the planet. Some specimens can, for instance, tip the scales at more than 2.5 tons, or 5,500 pounds.
Yet along with their massive sizes, ocean sunfish have other identifying features. For one, the bony fish have massive yet bluntly shaped heads that converge into small, pointy mouths. The giant fish also don’t have rear fins with which to power through the water. Instead, they have only dorsal and anal fins and clavuses – which are lobes at their backs that work like rudders.
All of these features come on bodies that can be almost 10 feet long and 14 feet tall. These massive fish are therefore believed to spend a chunk of their time drifting with the ocean’s currents rather than propelling themselves around. But if faced with a predator, the sunfish can swim quickly and even launch themselves vertically from the water.
Most of the time, though, sunfish hide far beneath the ocean’s surface – tending to swim and hunt at depths of more than 650 feet. So they earn their name because they ascend to the surface to thermally recharge after cold, deep dives. And then afterward, they float on their sides so that their extra-large profiles can soak up the sun’s rays.
It’s only logical, then, that sunfish tend to inhabit waters either temperate or tropical all over the world. Yet the particular spot where Jones found the driftwood-reminiscent fish happened to be near Australia’s Murray River – where sunfish would not normally be found. The species’ range has, however, shown changes in recent years.
For instance, sunfish wouldn’t normally pop up on the southwestern coast of England, where the water does not qualify as either temperate or tropical. But experts theorize that the bony fish may actually have moved in as marine temperatures spiked – or that the nearby Gulf Stream brought them in.
But wherever its found, a giant sunfish could potentially scare those unfamiliar with the species. After all, a creature of its size would appear to have the ability to injure a human. And the bony fish does in fact have the potential to hurt people as it floats through the ocean. So while it would usually perform this activity without incident, a sunfish could cause damage by accidentally happening upon, say, surfers or swimmers.
Grzelak brought up one example in speaking to Live Science. She relayed that her partner, Jones, “has heard stories over the years about sunfish sinking yachts in races and the damage they do to boats.” This typically happens when they rise to the surface to sunbathe: unsuspecting vessels collide with them.
And because the sunfish has such huge dimensions, it can cause serious damage in such run-ins – especially to a ship’s hull or propellers. Similarly, when these giant creatures leap vertically from the water, they sometimes crash down on boats and hurt passengers. In a 2005 incident, for example, a sunfish landed atop a four-year-old boy, and the child suffered minor scrapes and cuts as a result.
Otherwise, though, sunfish don’t pose any threat to the humans with whom they may come in contact. It’s even been reported that some of the bony fish have gotten used to divers who come back to its waters for regular jaunts. Yet on most other occasions, the fish will shy away from human interaction altogether.
Perhaps this is why we haven’t got all of the facts about the species. We know, for example, that the sunfish can live for up to a decade in captivity – although their natural lifespan has yet to be recorded. Scientists have also discovered that ocean sunfish do have a few more threats to their livelihood. In spite of their extra-large size, you see, these fish actually deal with hungry predators, including orca whales and sharks.
Yet one of the sunfish’s predators, the sea lion, does not seem to hunt the animals for food. Instead, sea lions appear to do so for sport – removing the sunfish’s fins and playing with their enormous frames before leaving them to perish somewhere in the ocean.
And on top of that, some humans also eat sunfish. In countries such as Taiwan and Japan, for instance, sunfish flesh counts as a delicacy. People consume the fins and the fish’s internal organs, too, and they can even use some of the frames as supplies for traditional medicinal practices. In some areas of the world, though, governments prohibit sunfish as a food source, since it may carry toxins.
Yet in the case of the Coorong National Park-based sunfish, it had died and washed ashore for none of the above reasons, according to Grzelak. She in fact said that the six-foot fish had no external signs of damage or injury. This meant that it hadn’t come into contact with a ship or a ruthless predator.
Instead, Grzelak reported, it is believed that the creature passed away naturally – or by consuming too much plastic. Grzelak said this assumption reflected the opinions of scientists who worked with the fishermen post-sunfish discovery. Unfortunately, though, the experts would only be able to make suggestions about the sunfish – since the animal once again washed out into the sea.
Jones and his crew couldn’t pick up the sunfish’s body because they had work to do that day. Plus, they couldn’t drive to gather and transport it as the beach had strict boat-only access rules. The team also had no cell reception to call any experts who might be able to help or retrieve the fish before the waves took it away.
Still, according to Ralph Foster, the fish collection manager at the South Australian Museum, the images of the giant fish would suffice. He told the ABC, “We get to actually look at them so infrequently, so we never know quite which one we’ve got. Which is why these photographs online are so useful, because we get to actually look at it.”