The Mysterious Fin

It was another gorgeous morning. I paddled through what remained of the harbor feeling strong. The tide was rushing out, and it felt like I was paddling down a fast moving river. Underneath me, I could see kelp stalks bending under the powerful sway of the current. I was making record time out of the harbor, just humming along. This is fun, I thought to myself.

But then I thought about the work I’d have to do through the harbor to get back to where I started, and winced a little at the prospect. It would be hard, and I will be tired. But it will be worth it.

As I left Newport Harbor, and made a slight right turn toward the west, the rising sun was at my back and I was able to see well past the lightly rippled surface of the water, deep down. A small swell worked its way toward me but I was able to move at a quick pace out into the open water.

I turned up my music, put my head down and worked up a good sweat as I paddled toward Catalina. I thought about how beautiful it all was, and hoped it would long remain this way, as Wilco’s Country Disappeared played in my ears.

As I paddled on my right side, something caught my eye. It was a fin, slicing the surface about 20 yards to my right. I immediately slammed on the brakes by shoving my paddle in the water and pushing backwards.

I looked hard at the fin as I came to a stop. It was narrow, white, and a little floppy. My first thought was that this was clearly not a dolphin fin, which at first made me think it must be a shark. But then I saw that the fin was maneuvering oddly, zigging and zagging, turning this way and that, and then the fin suddenly flopped over and laid down on the surface.

What in the world?

I paddled slowly toward it, looking intently into the water. When I got close, the creature’s large white body came into focus under the water. It was huge. It was circular and it had two fins, one on top and one below.

No way! A sunfish!

I had never seen a sunfish (also called a mola mola) paddling before. The sunfish is one of the largest bony fish in the world, and they can get huge. This one was easily a full six feet from fin tip to fin tip. It was one of the oddest and coolest looking oceanic creatures I had ever seen in person. I knelt down just a few feet from it, ripped the GoPro off my head, turned it on, and shoved it in the water. The fish gracefully turned away from the camera, showing me her full profile, then spun slowly the other direction, and sort of wandered off into the blue murk in the distance.

When it was gone, I thought about how often my curiosity has taken me to beautiful moments like this. I reminded myself to stay curious, to keep chasing any fin you see. How important it is to be curious, to know there is so much more to know.

I also thought about often sunfish are probably mistaken for sharks, which would cause many people to hightail it in the other direction. That is a shame. The sunfish is graceful, unique, weirdly shaped, and a perfectly harmless fish (they feed on jellyfish and other small fish) that is worth investigating if you have the chance.

And as a public service announcement, do us a favor and lay off the mylar balloons for birthdays and graduations. These things are made of synthetic nylon, they are not biodegradable, and I am always finding them floating on the ocean when I am paddling, especially after holidays like Valentine’s Day or during the graduation season in May and June. Sunfish mistake them for jellyfish and it kills them. Ok, PSA ended.

There is so much wonder and beauty out there in the world. Get yourself out there and find it, whether it is on the water or on a dirt trail, and do your part to protect it.

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