Thursday, December 16, 2010

So often we post ocean sunfish carcasses that wash ashore on Cape Cod beaches. Recently however, Sabrina Fletcher sent us these photos of a "living" sunfish that she encountered approximately 30 miles offshore from the boat landing at Murr...ells Inlet. Sabrina wrote that "this fish let us cruise up to him/her on our boat, I reached out and it let me pet its top fin, was AMAZING! It let us hover near it and observe and capture these photos for over 15 minutes before it drifted off to the deep!"

Thanks Sabrina for sending these photos to NEBShark and a
llowing us to post them on Facebook and our blog. Nice to have pictures and encounters with live and healthy sunfish. They are so beautiful and deserve our full attention and admiration!

Send your photos and sighting information to our community-sighting network called NEBShark (New England Basking Shark Project). We will include your sighting information into our database which is helping us learn more about these amazing animals. Go to

Thanks for your help.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ocean Sunfish Necropsy on December 5, 2010

This afternoon, Krill, Leah and Nick traveled to the Cape to find a dead ocean sunfish that had stranded on Mants Beach in Brewster, MA. One of the local residents, Kathy, called the IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue Program to report this animal and they passed the information along to NEBShark, the community-sighting network for basking sharks and ocean sunfish that is maintained by NECWA.

Bob Prescott, Director of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary had also come across this carcass the night before as he was conducting night patrols for cold-stunned sea turtles. Bob reported back to Krill that this carcass was quite large, in fact, one of the largest he has seen. And he was right!

When the NECWA team arrived on site and found the carcass just below the high tide line, no one could believe just how big this animal really was. From tip of snout to tip of tail, this carcass was close to 8 feet in length. This is the largest ocean sunfish carcass that has been examined by NECWA staff since the NEBShark program began in 2005.

Not only was this a large ocean sunfish for the area, but the carcass was relatively fresh indicating that the animal had recently died in the waters of Cape Cod Bay. Hard to image that a more tropical-loving fish can continue to reside in our cold northern waters as winter approaches.

Many of the local residents came down to the beach and chatted with the NECWA team. Many had questions about the life history of this unique and unusual animal and its occurrence in our cold New England waters.

But we believe that the ocean sunfish stranding on our Cape beaches in the fall have missed the thermal cues that should have sent them migrating south to their warmer wintering grounds. Just like the sea turtles who become trapped inside Cape Cod Bay and become cold-stunned as Bay water temperatures continue to drop , these large fish can't seem to function in extreme cold waters.

This was Leah's first necropsy of an ocean sunfish and she was amazed at the size of the animal and the beauty of this marine creature. She helped Nick collect the external body measurements that will be included in the NEBShark database and she helped with the necropsy by focusing on the examination of the sex organ.

Because of the size and general health of this animal, it was very difficult cutting through the thick layer of reticulated collagen that measured over 10 cm in most areas. But when Krill and Leah extracted the ovary, they couldn't believe just how large in size it was.

It took the team almost 4 hours to conduct a Level A examination followed by a modified necropsy were the animal was sexed (female) and the vertebrae was collected for future age determination studies. Everyone was cold and hungry so off they headed to Hyannis for a quick meal before heading home.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ocean Sunfish Necropsy on December 3, 2010, 2009 - Town Neck, Sandwich

After Tammy and Krill necropsied the ocean sunfish at Cole Road Beach, they headed to Town Neck Beach in Sandwich, MA to check on another dead ocean sunfish reported just off the boardwalk area. NECWA intern Nick and good friend Peter met Krill and Tammy at the Town Neck parking lot. From there, they headed out to the beach on the bay side to look for the sunfish.

They were able to meet up with Holly and her beautiful dog Ruby, who had reported this ocean sunfish carcass a few days ago. Like Steve in Eastham, Holly was keeping on eye on this carcass to keep Krill updated on its position. Unfortunately for the NECWA team, this carcass was at the base of the boardwalk and within easy access. But by the time the team arrived, the carcass had been moved down the beach quite some distance by the extreme high tides.

Holly, Ruby and their friends joined the team as we walked down the beach in search of the ocean sunfish. The trio of dogs were having a great time on the beach and it was nice to have this type of four-legged company. As dusk quickly approached, the team worked furiously to try and collect all the needed body measurements and tissue samples. Joining us on the beach was Cape Cod Times journalist and photographer Jason, who took pictures and video of our activities.
Jason posted information about this necropsy and the plight of the great ocean sunfish in the Cape Cod Times, both the online and the printed version. We thank Jason for doing this for it helps to get the word out about strandings of ocean sunfish on Cape Cod and the work that NECWA does. A day or so after Jason's articles, NECWA has received numerous emails about ocean sunfish sightings in the New England area and south. And NECWA received a call from Kathy in Brewster about an ocean sunfish off Robbins Hill Road. NECWA staff are gearing up to head down the Brewster this afternoon to check out this report.

Thanks Jason, your article and photos really made a difference!

I will catch up on the rest of this posting when I return from Brewster. Thanks again to all our volunteers who help us find and keep track of these incredible pelagic fish. Although the ocean sunfish is not a fish of interest to any government body or organization, it is a fish of interest to NECWA and to the residents of Cape Cod who admire its size and uniqueness.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ocean Sunfish Stranding, Cole Road Beach, Eastham on Dec. 03, 2010

Today, Krill and Tammy (one of our NECWA interns) met Steve down at Cole Road Beach in Eastham to find an ocean sunfish carcass that Steve had recently reported to NEBShark (New England Basking Shark Project at This season, NECWA staff and interns have responded to over 20 reports of dead ocean sunfish that have stranded on Cape Cod beaches. Although we haven't been able to find every carcass that was reported, we have documented each sighting in our database.

Assisting with ocean sunfish Level A (external exam) and necropsy (internal exam) activities is a great learning experience for Tammy and the many other NECWA interns who are involved in this research project. This was Tammy's second ocean sunfish stranding and she was able to conduct most of the Level A examination (photo-documentation and body measuring) as well as assist Krill with the necropsy.

This ocean sunfish did not have a thick layer of reticulated collagen under the skin. The thickness of this tissue may directly relate to the overall health of the animal. Tammy and Krill were able to sex this animal which turned out to be a small male. Right now, it is close to a 50/50 ratio between female ocean sunfish and males.

Although this fish appeared healthy, its death is a reminder that this species has a difficult time dealing with cold water temperatures. Ocean sunfish are a warm water species that migrates into our productive waters to feed on jellyfish, ctenophores and other gelatinous critters. In the fall, many sunfish stay in our area too long, possibly fooled by the warmer waters of Cape Cod Bay. Or they may become trapped in the inner elbow of the Cape finding it impossible to navigate south.

We thank Steve for reporting this carcass to us and for keeping track of it for a number of days until we could get down to the Eastham area. We rely very heavily on Cape residents who walk the beaches on a regular basis. They become our eyes and ears and they allow us to respond to a large number of ocean sunfish strandings each season.

Thanks again Steve and all our supporters. Your efforts are helping NECWA collect the largest database on ocean sunfish in the northwestern Atlantic.

Friday, December 3, 2010