The Fish


On December 21st, 1938, a strange fish was caught off the East London coast. This fish was thought to have been extinct for over two hundred million years.

Coelacanth – First find in South Africa

The first hint that western scientists had of a modern, living coelacanth existed was when 32 year old Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who was curator of a museum in East London, South Africa, was inspecting local fish catches for unusual specimens in 1938.

Marjorie had an agreement with Captain Hendrik Goosen, skipper of the trawler Nerine, that he would call her to look over his catch should anything interesting appear in his nets. On 23rd of December 1938, Marjorie was at the museum mounting a reptile collection, when a call came through from the dock. She felt that she should at least take a break and go down to the dock to wish the crew a Merry Christmas.

She took a taxi to the docks, gave her wishes and was about to leave, when she noticed a blue fin protruding from beneath the pile of fish. She would later write that she saw the most beautiful fish she had ever seen, and that is was pale blue with shiny silver markings, and about five feet in length.

She did not know what the specimen was, but knew she had to get it back to the museum immediately. Understanderbly, the taxi driver at first balked at the idea of carrying a smelly fish in his vehicel, but after a persuasive discussion with Marjorie, he transported both her and the fish to the museum.

She made a drawing of the fish and mailed this, with a description, to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a forty one- year-old chemistry teacher with a locally well known passion for fish, at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, some fifty miles south of East London. Smith, however, was away for Christmas holidays, correcting exams at his seaside getaway. Meanwhile, Courtenay’s museum director in East London was not impressed with the find. He dismissed the fish as a common rock cod- a grouper!

But on January 3, 1939, Miss Latimer heard back from Smith in a now famous cable: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED.” However, in an attempt to preserve the fish by mounting it, the innards had been discarded. A search for them in the museum and town trash bins proved fruitless. Even photographs taken of the preparation had somehow been spoiled.

Smith, anxiously biding his time, wondering how he could incorporate the possibility of such a discovery into an already overloaded dual career, did not arrive at the East London museum until February 16. The professor, a thin wiry man of about 5’7″, sporting, as was his custom, a close-cropped crew cut, khaki bush shorts and sandals, viewed the mounted specimen, exclaiming, according to one account, “I always knew somewhere or somehow, a primitive fish of this nature would appear.” Smith identified the fish immediately as a coelacanth, that is as a member of what must be a still living coelacanth species. The fish would soon be called the “most important zoological find of the century” (an accolade that might now go to the Martian microfossils if they check out.) A living dinosaur, it was said, would be no more amazing than this incredible discovery. The species was named Latimeria chalumnae in honour of her and the waters in which it was found. The fish was referred to as a “Living Fossil”.

After a local newspaper reporter was allowed to take a single photograph of the mounted coelacanth, the picture soon appeared around the world. Smith, Courtenay-Latimer, and the coelacanth became overnight celebrities. When a public viewing for one day only was arranged, 20,000 visitors are said to have shown up.

But the story of the coelacanth’s “discovery” does not end there. With no internal organs left from the East London specimen, many questions remained unanswered. Smith was soon obsessed with finding a second intact specimen. Speculating that the fish had drifted down from the north on the Mozambique current, he had a reward notice with a picture of the first specimen posted among the East African coast up as far as Kenya. A decade went by with no response. Smith continued a long-term project of cataloging the fishes of the Indian Ocean, always proselytizing about the coelacanth wherever he went. It was during this period that the myth of the coelacanth as a deep ocean fish took hold in the popular and scientific imagination. Expeditions from Europe scoured the ocean depths in search of coelacanths. But Smith remained convinced that the fish’s physiognomy and blue color made it a lower reef predator and not a true deep-water fish.

Captain Eric Hunt, a dapper thirty eight-year-old Briton who owned and helmed a vessel, the Nduwaro, trading among Zanzibar, Madagascar, and the Comoros, a group of small islands in the Mozambique Channel belonging to France at the time, attended one of Smith’s lectures in Zanzibar. An intelligent, curious fellow, with a penchant for marine aquaria, he quickly became fascinated with the whereabouts of the coelacanth. Hunt offered to post Smith’s reward notices among the Comoro islands, which are midway between Tanzania and Madagascar. Smith obliged and with the help of local authorities, the Comoros were soon plastered with coelacanth reward notices.

On December 21, 1952, fourteen years after the discovery of the first living coelacanth, Captain Hunt, returning to the port of Mutsamudu on the Comorian island of Anjouan, was approached by two Comorans carrying a hefty bundle. One, Ahamadi Abdallah, had caught by hand-line what the locals called a “mame” or “Gombessa”, a heavy grouper-like fish that turned up on their lines from time to time. The fisherman was accompanied by an astute schoolteacher, Affane Mohamed, who had noticed that this was the same fish pictured on the reward notices Hunt had posted. Hunt was ecstatic and arranged for Smith’s award of one hundred British pounds to be paid to them. As there was no better preservative available at Mutsamudu, Hunt and his crew salted the fish, then sailed with it to the harbor at Dzaoudzi, an islet off the Comoran island of Mayotte, where he bought formalin from the director of medical services. Already aware of the scientific importance of the internal organs, Hunt injected the preservative into the specimen, then cabled Smith in South Africa. He awaited Smith’s response.

The French authorities at nearby Pamanzi were not sure that this creature was indeed the fabled coelacanth. Nevertheless, concerned that they might be missing out on something important, cables were dispatched to French scientific authorities in Madagascar. But no message came back. Hearing nothing, the Pamanzi authorities decided to take possession of the fish anyway if Smith did not come for it personally. Hunt sent a frantic second cable to Smith, urging him to fly to the Comoros immediately.

For J.L.B. Smith this find, if indeed it were a coelacanth, would consummate a fourteen-year obsession. Worried all the time that Hunt’s specimen might not be what he claimed, Smith negotiated with Prime Minister Malan of South Africa, for a plane to fly him to the Comoros. Malan, out of the capital on yet another Christmas holiday, consented. By now Smith was a nervous wreck, hardly amused when the flight crew of a DC3 “Dakota” put at his disposal for the trip, faked a radio message that French fighters had scrambled to intercept them.

Having landed in the Comoros, it was a quick trip from the airstrip down to the harbor at Pamanzi where the Nduwaro was moored. When Smith saw the dead fish he wept. It was indeed a coelacanth. He now had his second specimen, organs intact, and the familiarity of the natives with this creature meant that at least one location of the coelacanth’s habitat had been discovered. The Dakota soon left the Comoros with Smith and “his” fish, returning to another round of worldwide publicity.

In the aftermath, the French felt cheated and closed the coelacanth to non-French researchers until the islands became independent in the 1970’s. Four years after the “discovery” of the second coelacanth, Eric Hunt disappeared at sea after his schooner ran aground on the reefs of the Geyser Bank between the Comoros and Madagascar. He was never found. J.L.B. Smith wrote his account of the coelacanth story in the book “Old Fourlegs,” first published in 1956. His book, Sea Fishes of the Indian Ocean, meticulously illustrated and co-authored by his wife Margaret, remains the standard ichthyological reference for the region. In spite of the controversies that followed, he was content with his role in the fabulous s episodes. Smith died in 1968- a suicide after a long illness. Captain Hendrick Goosen passed away just after the fiftieth anniversary of the “discovery” of the coelacanth in 1988. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer lived on in East London, the lone survivor of the greatest fish story ever told, until her death on May 17, 2004 at age 97!

Coelacanth – Second species in Indonesia

In 1997, Arnaz and Mark Erdmann were traveling on honeymoon in Indonesia and saw a strange fish entering the market at Manado Tua, on the island of Sulawesi. Arnaz Erdmann recognized it as a gombessa, but it was brown, not blue. (The Erdmanns did not realize this was a new species until an expert saw their photo on the web.) DNA testing revealed that this species, called rajah laut (‘King of the Sea’) by the Indonesians, is not related to the Comorian population. It was given the scientific name Latimeria menadoensis.

Coelacanth – St. Lucia Marine Protected Area in South Africa

In South Africa, the search continued on and off over the years. One diver, 46-year-old Riaan Bouwer, lost his life exploring for coelacanths in June 1998.

On October 28th, 2000, just south of the Mozambique border, in Sodwana Bay in the St. Lucia Marine Protected Area, three deep-water divers – Pieter Venter, Peter Timm and Etienne le Roux – made a dive to 104 metres and suddenly spotted a coelacanth. However, they were diving without cameras. The group vowed to return with photographic equipment.

Calling themselves SA Coelacanth Expedition 2000, the group returned, this time with several additional members. On November 26 they performed a first dive, but did not witness any coelacanths. The next day, four members of the group – Pieter Venter, Gilbert Gunn, Christo Serfontein and Dennis Harding – went down again. Moving from cavern to cavern, they found three coelacanths. The largest was between 1.5 and 1.8 metres long, the other two 1.2 metres and 1 metre. The fish swam heads down and appeared to be feeding off of ledges. The cameramen took video footage and photos. Then, however, disaster struck. Christo suddenly passed out under water, and 34-year-old Dennis Harding rose to the surface with him in an uncontrolled ascent. Harding complained of neck pains and died in the boat. Apparently, he had suffered a cerebral embolism. Christo recovered after being taken underwater for recompression.

However, the find was big news in South Africa. In March-April 2002, the Jago Submersible and Fricke Dive Team descended into the depths off Sodwana and observed 15 coelacanths, one pregnant.