OCEAN CITY – Lifeguards and beachgoers faced a rare occurrence last Friday, when the carcass of a rare Atlantic sunfish washed ashore at 26th Street.
“I’ve never seen one on the beach in Ocean City before,” said Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin this week as he recalled the events of last Friday.
The sunfish appeared to have been injured by the propeller of a large boat, most likely causing its death. Arbin and two lifeguards on duty dragged the 400-pound fish up the beach and away from the surf, ensuring that the carcass would not wash back out to sea.
The rare Atlantic sunfish is known for its odd shape, which resembles a large head or an ancient stone axe, consisting of long fins and no tail. The fish inhabits all of the world’s oceans and can be up to 11 feet in length and up to 3,000 pounds. It is commonly known as the largest bony fish in the world.
A sunfish can be seen drifting at the surface while laying on its side or upright with its dorsal fin projecting above the water like a shark.
The massive fish was dragged to the top of the beach, where Public Works Department later picked up the carcass and disposed of it.
“Dragging it up the beach is what we would do with anything – anything in the ocean we deal with the same way,” said Arbin.
Arbin explained that when objects or sea life are spotted in the water, beach patrol quickly remove it from the water to keep swimmers safe. A piling, for example, would be removed in similar fashion.
“We want to get it out of the ocean because if it hits you, you could get seriously hurt,” said Arbin.
While keeping swimmers out of harm’s way is important, it is also critical to protect sea life that is swimming close to shore. For example, swimmers are often cleared out of the path of schools of bluefish by lifeguards.
“We want to protect the people and we want to protect the animals, the sea life,” he said.
A large crowd gathered Friday to see the rare sunfish, curious about the unfolding scene.
“A lot of people nearby circle around and other people on the beach see that and come down,” said Arbin, adding that the crowd fluctuated as people got a glimpse and moved on. All in all, Arbin estimates 150 people gathered at some point to view the fish.
Crowd control is important in any situation on the beach, said Arbin, “people see a crowd and they call 911.” As a result, lifeguards notify communications immediately, so everyone is aware of what is occurring.
It’s also important to keep people away, added Arbin. In the case of the sunfish, it could have been harboring bacteria.
When live mammals come ashore, such as seals, people can potentially be injured.
“They’ll bite your finger off, but they look so cute,” said Arbin. “When something comes ashore, it’s usually because something is wrong.
In his more than three decades working along the beaches in Ocean City, Arbin has witnessed a variety of objects and sea life come ashore, some more unusual than others.
“We’ve had totally intact whale carcasses, 20 feet long, come ashore, where we’ve had to use a flat bed truck and a crane to get it off the beach. That’s pretty unusual,” he said.
Banner planes that have crashed in to the ocean have also been brought ashore before, as well as sealed oil drums. Arbin noted that objects typically find their way to shore after big storms.
The sunfish has since been disposed of by Public Works, but had it been a mammal, the Department of Natural Resources or the National Aquarium would have been notified to investigate its death.