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On Exhibit: Ocean Sunfish

April 24, 2013

by Margaret Cotrufo

My job as Assistant Librarian at the Museum involves taking care of the Museum’s historical documents as well as cataloging historical and digital images. Occasionally, I am asked to research how the Museum acquired certain specimens. Here is a brief account of how the Museum acquired the Ocean Sunfish which is on exhibit in the Nature’s Explorers Hall.

Papier-mache model of an ocean sunfish, on exhibit a museum.

Model of Ocean Sunfish, or Common Mola, on exhibit at the Museum. (Photo by Margaret Cotrufo/NCMNS)

On Monday morning, May 31, 1926, H.H. Brimley, director of the State Museum, answered his phone. On the other end of the line a faint, but very excited voice announced:

“Humphrey talking! From Swansboro! Big fish — fifteen hundred pounds — seven and half feet long — nothing like it ever seen here before”

Brimley, who had a fascination with the large fauna of North America, responded “Hold that fish! We will be right there.” He and his assistant Mr. Davis quickly packed up skinning knives, hatchets, a steel tape measure, and a change of work clothes. Speed was necessary when dealing with what they assumed was 1500 lbs. of rapidly decomposing flesh. Off they went to Swansboro, a small coastal town 150 miles east of Raleigh, stopping only to acquire bichloride tablets¹ from a drugstore along the way.

The “big fish” they were going to pick up was an Ocean Sunfish or Mola mola. Molas are peculiar fish: large and flat with a ridiculously small mouth for their size. They will drift along the surface of the water lying on their side. They are gentle and curious and generally do not bother humans. This particular fish had gotten stranded on a sandy spot near Bogue Inlet and died. Capt. W. E. Mattocks towed it in to Swansboro on his way home from a fishing trip.

Upon arrival at Swansboro, Brimley and Davis were relieved to find the specimen in good condition. Mr. Humphrey of the New Riverview Hotel had packed the fish in ice. Now they needed to determine the most economical method for preserving the body. The plan they came up with was to make a plaster cast of the body and fins and later use papier mâché to create a model. It was too late to begin the project so they packed another 300 lbs. of ice on the fish and returned to the hotel to order the plaster. They inquired in Swansboro and nearby Jacksonville with no success. Eventually they found plaster in New Bern, 45 miles west and placed an order for 800 lbs. to be delivered the next morning. Then, as Brimley put it “we turned in to be lulled to sleep by the murmur of the wind, the lapping waves along the shore, and the soft caresses of the salt sea-air — and to dream of herds of monster fish waiting in line for the privilege of becoming Museum specimens.”

Two men pose with captured mola

Harry Davis and Reiny Foster pose on the ice house dock in Swansboro, NC with mola. (Photo by J. E. Cunningham from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences)

The next morning the plaster did not arrive as scheduled and with the ice on the specimen melting fast, they needed a new plan. So instead of making a mold on-site the two curators decided to save the entire skin from one side of the fish, the two fins and the jawbones. They also took many photographs, measurements, notes and sketches.

Brimley's drawing of the mola model with measurements

Brimley’s sketch used to build the framework for the model of the sunfish

Back at the Museum, Brimley, who was an expert taxidermist, sketched the fish to scale. It was 8 feet vertically from fin tip to fin tip and seven feet in length. The mouth was only 3 x 5½ inches. You can see all of Brimley’s measurements in the finished sketch above including the framework made of white pine and cypress. He then fashioned ¼-inch galvanized wire netting around the framework. The papier mâché was layered on top of the wire frame.

Papier mâché model ready to be painted.

Papier mâché model ready to be painted. The finished model weighed 150 lbs.

Next, using the saved skin as a reference, Brimley and Davis painted and repainted the papier mâché at least six times before they were satisfied. “Sunny” was now ready for exhibit. He was placed in a glass exhibit case with a fake ocean bed made of beach sand and glycerin. The glycerin was used to make the sand appear wet. Some corals and a few smaller stuffed fish were added for scale.

Men painting the model of a sunfish

These two photos show Harry Davis (photo on left) and H.H. Brimley (right) painting the model of the sunfish. (Photo from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences archives)

It appears that the sunfish remained on exhibit from that day in fall of 1927 until the present. At one time there was another sunfish of a different species displayed with it. The other species which you see in the photo below was a Sharp-tailed Mola (Mola lanceolatus) captured by the mullet-seining crew of the Brown’s Inlet Fishing Camp south of Swansboro.

Museum exhibit showing life-sized models of two ocean sunfish specie.

An exhibit in the Museum showing life-sized models of the Ocean Sunfish (foreground) and a Sharp-tailed Mola.  (Photo circa late 1930s, from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences archives)

Presently, the mola is exhibited in the Nature’s Explorers hall on the second floor of the main building of the Museum.

For a video of molas swimming, see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/video/Swim-with-the-Mola-Mola.html#ooid=Q3M3l5NDqL457pxNNuQ6s7HnjMeb5fvi

¹Brimley’s mention of bichloride is: “So, for use in avoiding blood poisoning while working on the expected over-ripe specimen, we added a bottle of bichloride tablets to our [first-aid] kit”. This may refer to bichloride of mercury which is an extremely poisonous compound when ingested but was also used as an antiseptic wash after dissolving the tablet in water.

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