Pictured above: Asri the ocean sunfish
I.D and Name Your Sunny
Asri the Sunfish
Story by James Michael
All photos copyright Tim Rock
In the mid-1990s, the phenomenon of ocean sunfish visiting the Indonesian islands of Bali and nearby Nusa Lembongan, Ceningan and Penida was largely a rumour. Occasionally spotted by surfers at Nusa Lembongan’s famous “Shipwreck Reef” break, they were thought to be were very large sharks. That is, until Aquaquest Micronesia TV Series producer Tim Rock, on his way back through Bali from filming in Komodo, tracked down an up-and-coming Bali-based dive operator from Western Australia, named Michael Cortenbach. Rock is also an author and having authored Bali’s first diving guide book in the 1980s with TT Yan of Gloria Maris Dive Shop, already knew the quality and diversity of Bali’s diving better than most. Rock expressed interest in doing a full TV show about Bali’s best dives and Cortenbach enthusiastically told Rock about Mola-mola (ocean sunfish).
Cortenbach also highlighted the recent discovery of a world class Manta Ray Interaction by the now defunct Bali Dive Club in the same region and the fledgling reef restoration work of Biorock in Pemuteran North Bali (now recognised as the world’s most successful community managed Reef restoration project). Further enhanced by the draw of the USS Liberty submerged shipwreck in Tulamben, Bali, and Bali’s vibrant and colourful culture, it was not difficult for Rock to put a convincing case together to motivate Aquaquest to produce the first and, to this date only, TV segment that covered all of Bali’s best diving attractions. A crew of five travelled Bali for two weeks diving, shooting video and taking stills. This turned out to be the first time the Mola mola aggregation was captured for television. It lead to many other high profile presenters and productions seeking out Cortenbach and Bali Diving Academy to record this phenomena for Natural History and Adventure Travel segments.
This also lead to a collaboration and friendship that has spanned twenty years and countless editorial pieces by Rock that were pivotal in Bali’s ultimate recognition as a world class diving destination and cemented the Mola mola amongst the big 5 of charismatic megafauna, rocketing it to fame in the diving world.
Marine Biologist Tierney Thys
Both Cortenbach and Rock fondly remember a week of diving culminating in an evening on one of Lembongan’s beaches surrounded by some of the world’s leading scientists such as Tierney Thys, on site to tag a Mola mola with a satellite tag, film makers such as the BBC’s Peter Schoones shooting for Blue Planet and leaders of conservationist groups such as The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, who were there to provide a platform for the protection of the area and unique opportunity to dive with these huge fish.
The energy, enthusiasm and excitement pouring from the lamp lit tables and infecting other visitors with the desire to listen to impromptu explanations and view ad-libbed slide shows from leaders in their fields, remains embedded in the memories of these mola pioneers. What transpired in the coming years with Cortenbach and Rock led to a series of television shows, books, magazine articles, scientific expeditions and exploratory trips mainly designed to find out more about seasonal visits to the reefs of Lembongan, Penida and Bali of Mola-molas.
Another memorable moment in 2003 occurred when Rock was participating in creating a book about Bali’s beauty with a corps of international photographers. The book was to benefit the 2002 Bali bombing victims and reassure people that Bali was a safe and gentle place. On his last dive of a three-week shoot supported by Cortenbach and Bali Diving Academy, he was 30 meters down and nearing the end of his dive when he saw movement in the distance. He slowly approached and saw a host of fish including angelfish, wrasses and bannerfish all at a cleaning station preening a beautiful, large mola. He watched for a while and then captured our poster image. Rock has named that sunfish Asri for its beauty and harmony with nature. It is also the name of his granddaughter.
Now, you too can name your Indonesian ocean sunfish through a new research project.
The photos will be used for scientific research, as part of a PhD project by marine biologist Marianne Nyegaard at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Identification of individuals from photos is well established for other marine mega fauna, such as whale sharks and manta rays, but has not previously been attempted for sunfish. Identifying individual Nusa Penida sunfish by their prominent skin patterns, Marianne hopes to estimate how many sunfish visit the island each season, how long they stay, and if the same individuals come back year after year.
Marianne will be based on Lembongan for the Molas some part of the 2013 Mola season. She will be hosted by the locally based Coral Triangle Center. She will employ various research methods in order to learn as much a possible about the Mola on Indonesia. In order to gather as much data as possible, Marianne is extending a photo appeal from new to old photos. Images, particularly those with digital data and time data, supported by a dive log that recognizes the location, depth and water temperature if recorded, can literally allow Marianne to research “back in time”. So if anyone has holiday shots of sunfish from previous years Marianne is very keen for a copy of these, along with any new photos to be taken in the upcoming sunfish season.
And of course Rock (see website) will be back in Bali sometime this season seeking to add to his already considerable collection of Mola mola images, ably supported by Cortenbach and Bali Diving Academy, who continue to bring this unique experience to divers and photographers alike.
For photo submission, please email your sunfish photos to:
Please send along with the date and time taken, approximate depth and dive site. And, if your Mola has not been spotted before, you get to name it so make sure you send along your favourite mola name!
All copyrights will be respected, and submitted photos will never be reproduced or circulated. They will be used for scientific research only. Nyegaard is hoping for worldwide submissions of sunfish taken anywhere in Indonesia, not only Bali. Hi resoluation images are preferred to make identifying the mola easier with the software she is using.
Want to know more about Bali? Get this new e-book for IOS devices by Tim Rock & Simon Pridmore