SCITUATE -- The last thing the Dyckman family of Pembroke expected to see on their Monday boating trip was a Mola mola.
In fact, they didn't even know what a Mola mola was. But after spotting the odd-looking sea creature -- which some say looks like a giant, floating pancake -- about 40 feet offshore from Scituate's Humarock beach, the family called up the New England Aquarium to find out exactly what they had encountered.
A mola mola, or ocean sunfish, is a large bonefish typically found in tropical waters, according to Steven Bailey, fish curator at the New England Aquarium.
Occasionally, these sea creatures will venture off the beaten path into the cooler waters off the Massachusetts coast -- but these sightings are rare.
Bailey said the aquarium gets reports of mola mola encounters about once every other year. Many, like the Dyckmans did, will at first mistake it for something else.
"We were just so excited by the experience -- we didn't know what it was," said Debby Dyckman, who was on the boat with her husband, their children and neighbors' children. "Everybody was guessing whether it was a dolphin, a shark or a stingray."
The fish, about six feet at its widest, bobbed up and down, periodically lazing about at the water's surface.
"He was just kind of hanging out," Dyckman said. "All of (the children) were just in awe."
Usually, it is one of the mola mola's two giant fins that people see first -- which explains why it is sometimes mistaken for a shark, and initially elicits fear.
But Bailey said the fish is actually quite harmless, preferring crustaceans and jelly fish over anything else for dinner.
And once people get a closer look at this swimmer, which can grow up to 10 feet at its widest and more than 600 pounds at its heaviest, they usually find it pretty lovable.
"The biggest seller at the aquarium gift shop is these big mola plush toys," Bailey said. "They're just so darned cute."