In 2019, a large grey blob was spotted on the shores of Santa Barbara's Coal Oil Point Reserve in southern California. Unfortunately, no one was able to identify the creature correctly. The only characteristic everyone could agree on was that it was massive, at almost seven feet long and close to 600 pounds.
After taking some pictures and going to social media for answers, the team at the reserve received help from a marine biologist. But no one was ready for the creature's rare identification. Keep reading to discover how experts were able to identify this mysterious creature...
600-Pound Creature Washed Up On Shore
A seven-foot 600-pound creature that's washed up on the beach is hard to ignore. Especially when employees of the Coal Oil Point Reserve in southern California had no clue what the creature is.
Well, that's not entirely true. They thought it looked strangely familiar, but after a closer look, they realized they were off target. What was this sea creature, and why did it wash up from the Pacific Ocean onto a California beach?
At First, They Thought It Was A Common Sunfish
At first, the Coal Oil Point Reserve experts believed that sea creature was a sunfish. That type of bony fish is one of the largest on Earth. Some of these fish have even been recorded weighing almost 2,000 pounds!
And while this washed-up critter seemed to fit the bill, something about it just didn't match up to the description of a sunfish. The creature was large enough to be a sunfish, but the experts soon realized it was something else altogether.
The Reserve Is Protected By A University
The Coal Oil Point Reserve employees found the creature washed up on the shores of Santa Barbara, California, in 2019. And, as horrible as it is that the creature passed away, it was lucky for environmentalists who dedicate their lives to researching such creatures.
The reserve is protected by the University of California Santa Barbara and is said to be one of the best examples of a coastal-strand environment. Hopefully, one of the researchers would have some idea as to what the creature was.
It Looked Like A Giant Grey Blob
The reserve is right alongside the Pacific Ocean, so it's no stranger to a wide variety of sea creatures, fauna, and vegetation. Researchers have said that there is no shortage of magnificent creatures swimming around in the depths, but nothing of this washed-up animal's magnitude.
Honestly, what could it be? From down on the beach, the intern who spotted the creature said it looked like nothing more than a grey blob. That is until he got close enough to see its entire body.
Jessica Nielsen Said It Was The Most Remarkable Creature She's Seen
Jessica Nielsen, a conservation specialist, was quoted in a University of California Santa Barbra press release saying that the intern's finding had initially shocked her. There hasn't been anything of the like that has washed up on the reservation's shore.
Unlike most creatures that wash up on shore, such as jellyfish, this creature had odd features that she couldn't place.
UCSB Biologist Became Invested In The Mystery
After posting pictures of the strange creature to the reserve's Facebook page to see if anyone had any ideas on what it could be, evolutionary biologist Thomas Turner became interested in the mystery. As an evolutionary biologist, one would think that Turner might have some semblance of a clue as to what the creature could be.
Unfortunately, he was just as stumped as Nielsen. But that doesn't mean he didn't grab his wife and son and rush down to the beach to get a closer look at the creature.
The Fish Had No Tail!
During an interview with CNN in February of 2019, Turner said, "t's the most unusual fish you've ever seen. It has no tail. All of its teeth are fused, so it doesn't have any teeth. It's just got this big round opening for a mouth."
Not to mention, the sea creature was huge! Turner even went as far as showing the magnitude of the creature's body by stretching his wingspan against its length, and Turner is six feet tall!
They Thought It Was A Common Sunfish
With no tail, a huge seven-foot-long body, and weighing a whopping 600 pounds, the researchers at the Coal Oil Point Reserve came to the conclusion that the creature was, in fact, a common sunfish, also known as a common mola.
The team then posted pictures of their find to iNaturalist, a social media platform for environmentalists, to see if anyone wanted to weigh in. The overall consensus was that the creature was an ocean sunfish.
Ralph Foster Threw The Common Sunfish Theory Out The Window
But not all is what it seems, and after someone looped in the South Australian Museum's fish expert, Ralph Foster, everyone's assumptions were once again thrown out the window. After Foster took a good luck at the animal, he concluded that it wasn't a common sunfish.
He actually thought that the creature wasn't among any documented fish species. With that new thought, Foster turned to someone he thought would have some answers.
Foster Looped In Marianne Nyegaard, A Marine Biologist
Not sure whether he was correct, Foster decided to contact Marianne Nyegaard, a marine biologist. After shooting off an email with a brief explanation and pictures of the creature, he waited and hoped he was going to get some solid answers. At this point, even a lead would be nice!
Unfortunately, she wasn't moved by the photos and was unable to draw any certain conclusions. Therefore, she was unable to positively identify the mystery species.
She Needed Better Pictures
It's not that Nyegaard was giving up identifying the creature. It's just that she needed better visual aids to help. During an interview with CNN, she said, "The pictures weren't very clear. I was reluctant to settle on an identification because it was so far out of range."
She was now on a mission with Foster to figure out what type of creature washed up on the shore near the reserve. So, they got in touch with Neilsen and Turner, asking for better quality pictures.
The Fish Was Gone
Nielsen and Turner were more than happy to go back down to the beach and snap some better photographs for the two scientists to look over. But that's when an issue came up. When the two went down to the beach, the creature was no longer there.
A few days had passed since the initial spotting, and it seemed as though the tide had come and washed the creature away. But they weren't going to give up that easily.
They Found It!
Starting at opposite ends of the beach, Neilsen and Turner walked toward each other while looking over the landscape. They were hopeful the creature would turn up sooner or later. They were right!
Just a bit away from its original location was the giant grey blob. Now, they were able to snap some higher-definition photographs to send out to the two scientists. With any luck, the pictures would help bring some answers.
They Noticed Some Unusual Markings
While snapping the pictures, Nielsen and Turner took another look over the mysterious creature. They noticed a few distinct markings that they didn't see before. The markings were a huge breakthrough in the "case" because it proved that their original common sunfish classification was wrong.
Now they really had to get the pictures back to Foster and Nyegaard! They were so close to figuring out the truth behind the huge sea creature.
Nyegaard Knew What The Fish Was Right Away
In 2019, Nielsen told the University of California Santa Barbra website, The Current, "It really was exciting to collect the photos and samples, knowing that it could potentially be such an extraordinary sighting."
And it seemed as though all of the excitement was warranted. Once the photos got into the hands of Nyegaard, the true nature of the fish came to light. Nyegaard told CNN that once she realized what the scientists had found she "nearly fell out of [her] chair."
It Was A Hoodwinker Sunfish
After reviewing the second batch of photos Nielsen and Turner took, Nyegaard figured out the true identity of the sea creature. Instead of being a common sunfish, the massive creature was a hoodwinker sunfish.
Ironically, back in 2017, Nyegaard was the marine scientist to discover and name the hoodwinker species. With there being so many different sunfish varieties, it's amazing that the scientists were able to narrow down the identity!
There Are Many Varieties Of Sunfish
Sunfish were first discovered back in 1758. But then, scientists were only privy to the common ocean sunfish, unaware that there were so many different varieties of the fish in the depths of the ocean.
It wasn't until much later that a new type of sunfish was spotted in the southern hemisphere, off the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other places. It was then that Nyegaard decided to look for the mysterious creature.
Hoodwinker Fish Typically Don't Come Into U.S. Waters
During an interview with CNN, Nyegaard said, "[The hoodwinker] had gone unnoticed because no one really realized it looked different. There's a long history of confusion about the species in the sunfish family. This fish had managed to stay out of sight and out of everybody’s attention. It had been taken for Mola mola [the ocean sunfish], so it was hoodwinking us all."
At first, she a hoodwinker sunfish didn't even cross her mind since there had never been spotting of the fish anywhere close to the United States.
Hoodwinker Fish Are Typically Found In The Southern Hemisphere
During an interview with The Guardian, Nyegaard said, "That's as far north as I have seen [the hoodwinker] that corresponds to cold water current. For this fish to suddenly rock up in California is really exciting."
She went on to explain that while the typical waters for the hoodwinker sunfish are in the southern hemisphere, it's not exactly abnormal for sunfish to drift far. In any case, the find was very exciting for the scientific community.
There's So Much More To Learn About The Hoodwinker Sunfish
Nyegaard told CNN, "To discover that it may be the first record in all of the Americas and only the second Northern Hemisphere record for the species… then I got very excited."
Then, during an interview with The Current, Nyegaard expressed her enthusiasm for helping ID the fish, saying, "Mola tecta [the hoodwinker] was just recently discovered, so there is still so much to learn about this species. I'm so glad that we could help these researchers make the final definitive ID."