Ocean creature that startled swimmers was sunfish, not shark, UNCW professor says

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The creature that earlier this month shocked a crew of open-water swimmers in the Intracoastal Waterway in Wrightsville Beach was not a shark, but instead a sunfish, a University of North Carolina Wilmington professor specializing in sea life said this week.

Thomas Lankford, associate professor at the school’s biology and marine biology department, confirmed this week that the giant fish was an ocean sunfish, which are currently in the middle of their winter migration.

“They are migrating southward now to avoid the colder winter temperatures,” Lankford wrote in an email to Lumina News. “They are not a threat to swimmers.”

But that wasn’t known to swimmers and spectators on the Dockside Restaurant dock on that Nov. 10 morning. In a video of the creature posted to Facebook by one of the swim’s participants, spotters positioned on the dock believed the creature to be a shark and screamed at the swimmers to be ready.

In the video, the ocean sunfish, known to be the heaviest bony fish in the world, protrudes its dorsal fin above the surface as it passes on the inside of the dock, giving the onlookers a close up view of the fish. Because both have dorsal fins that stick out of the water, sunfish and sharks can be mistaken.

This is what occurred when the ocean sunfish was first spotted by swim organizers on the dock, as  swim organizers screamed “shark” to the participants, who were several hundred feet away in Motts Channel, preparing to cross the waterway.

“Oh my God, he’s huge,” the videographer can be heard saying in the clip.

“It was crazy and I’d never seen anything like it before, whatever it was,” said Kristen Smith Jeno, one of the participants in the Swim the Loop event, a pared-down version of the annual swimming event that was cancelled this September in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

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