WELLS — Sharks? Drunk sharks? Giant silver pancakes?

Hundreds of people who were enjoying a spectacular Labor Day on Wells Beach got a momentary jolt as three gray fins appeared 30 to 50 yards off shore about 11 a.m. Monday.

Lifeguards ordered everyone out of the water as they set about trying to determine whether the fins, sticking 8 to 10 inches out of the water, were shark fins.

They turned out to be ocean sunfish, odd-looking creatures that resemble huge flounder stood up on end.

“They are docile. They are no threat to humans,” said Wells Fire Chief Dan Moore, who oversees the town’s lifeguards.

Sharks have been in the news this summer. A widely circulated picture taken off Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod showed a fin, presumably from a shark, trailing a kayaker.

Sharks have been blamed for eating seals off Truro, Mass. And last weekend, the carcass of a 13-foot great white shark, a rare but deadly visitor to the New England coast, washed up in Rhode Island.

Moore said he knows of no shark sightings on Wells Beach this year, but, “It’s not uncommon to see sharks at this time of year … blues and makos along our beaches.”

Everyone on the 2.4 miles of Wells Beach was shooed out of the surf for about 30 minutes Monday before a surfer confirmed that the fins belonged to sunfish.

Before Moore and his lifeguard captain, Brittany White, could get out to them, the fish had swum off.

Aimee Hayden-Roderiques, the aquarium manager and natural science educator at the Maine State Aquarium in West Boothbay Harbor, laughed when asked about ocean sunfish.

“We probably get a couple calls a year, people seeing them off beaches,” she said. “It could be a shark so they err on the side of caution, but hopefully not on the side of panic.”

Ocean sunfish are odd, to be sure, she said.

“They’re big — the size of a Volkswagen bug and probably just about as heavy,” she said.

In fact, the ocean sunfish — no relation to the little sunnies that get hooked in Maine lakes — is the heaviest bony fish in the world, growing to as much as to 2,200 pounds. It grows to 6 feet long and 8 feet from top to bottom.

Ocean sunfish can damage small boats. Whenever they injure people, it’s because they get tossed into them by the surf.

They are often deep in the water but occasionally come to the surface in pursuit of food.

“It’s very, very awkward when it’s at the surface,” Hayden-Roderiques said. “The fin sticks up, moving side to side because they’re wobbly. It kind of looks like a drunk shark, if you will. Shark fins are pretty stable and moving forward.”

James Sulikowski, associate professor at the University of New England’s Marine Science Center, said ocean sunfish aren’t the primary food source for any animal, and they don’t make good eating for people.

“The flesh and bone of that fish is super soft and mushy — spongy is a good word for it,” he said. “They kind of look like a sick and dying animal flailing at the surface.”

White, the lifeguard captain, said she has been working at Wells Beach for seven years and the only other time she saw sunfish was last summer.

“Once their fin comes up, it flops over and they kind of roll over on their side,” White said. “It looks like a big pancake.”

While she and Moore are pretty sure that’s what was out there Monday, they turned to their shark protocols anyway just to be safe, she said.

Somebody called 911, but generally people were excited more than worried. Still, some remained tentative.

“Even after we got it identified,” White said, “they wondered if it was safe to go in the water.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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