Discovering, Diving with and Studying Coelacanths

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Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and her discovery

The coelacanth was first spotted in trawler catch by legendary naturalist Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer at the South African port of East London in December 1938. Realizing she may have made an extraordinary find but not recognizing the fish, she sent a sketch of it to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a renowned professor of chemistry and ichthyology at Rhode University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Smith identified the fish as a coelacanth but one that was a different genus from those found in fossils. He named the new fish Latimeria chalumnae after Latimer and the place it was caught, the mouth of the Chalumna River in southeastern South Africa. By the time Smith reached East London the fish had been sent to a taxidermist and it soft parts had been discarded (the mounted fish is now on display at the East London Museum).

Carolyn Butler wrote in National Geographic: Since this chance sighting, Latimeria chalumnae have been found in several pockets in the Indian Ocean. No one knows how many there are — maybe as few as 1,000 or as many as 10,000. Because of the depth of their habitat, they have mainly been photographed by submersibles and remotely operated vehicles. Divers first documented the fish in 2000; in January and February 2010, a specially trained team dived deep to take pictures of a small colony in Sodwana Bay, South Africa. [Source: Carolyn Butler, National Geographic, March 2011]

David Attenborough wrote in his book "Life on Earth" (1979): Several dozen coelacanths have been caught and paradoxically, science now knows more about Latimeria than many an abundant fish. A pregnant female has been caught with young inside her attached to their yolk sacs, just like the Illinois fossil, showing that the species does not lay its eggs but gives birth to live young. But because it is so powerful a fish, such a doughty fighter and has to be dragged up from such depths, Latimeria very seldom reaches the shore alive."
“One of the fishermen who brought a Coelacanth in, lashed it to the side of his canoe. It, too, was nearly dead, but he was persuaded to release it in a bay long enough for it to be filmed with an underwater camera as it swam slowly above the bottom. And indeed, it did hold its stout pectoral fins away from the sides of its body, and it was not hard to imagine that had it been vigorous, it could have used them to help it move over the rocky sea floor of its true environment. What is more, it was also clear that, mechanically, such fins would be of real assistance out of water as in it, had the fish, like its ancient forebears, been living in shallow water and become stranded.”

As of 2001, 109 coelacanth’s had been catelougued in the Comoros Island’s area. At that time it was believed that there were 200 to 300 off Grand Comore and a few more had been sighted off Anjjounan. At that time juveniles had never been sighted, perhaps because they live in deeper waters. [Source: Reuters, February 14, 2001]

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

First Discovery of the Coelacanth in South Africa

Where coelacanths have been found

David Attenborough wrote in his book "Life on Earth" (1979): In 1938, a trawler fishing off the coast of South Africa brought up a very strange fish. It was large, nearly two meters long, with powerful jaws and heavy armoured scales. After the catch had been landed at East London, the curator of the small local museum, Miss Courtenay-Latimer, came down to look it over. She noticed this peculiar fish and although she was not a fish specialist, she became convinced that it was of great importance. She wrote to Professor J.B.L. Smith of Grahamstown University, the greatest authority on African fish, describing it briefly. Before he could get to the specimen, its entrails had decomposed so badly that they had to be thrown away, so it was a gutted specimen that he eventually saw. In spite of this, and the fact that it was so large, he recognised it immediately as a coelacanth. He named it Latimeria and informed an astonished world that a creature thought to have been extinct for 70 million years was still alive."
"The discovery was hailed as the scientific sensation of the century and a huge search for another specimen was mounted. Leaflets and posters carrying a picture of Latimeria and offering a huge reward were distributed among the countless fishing villages that dot the coasts of southern and eastern Africa. But without result.

Susan L. Jewett wrote in the Washington Post: Courtney-Latimer was building a scientific collection of fishes and had arranged with a local fisherman, Capt. Hendrik Goosen, to collect specimens for the museum. On December 22, 1938, Courtney-Latimer received a phone call: Goosen's trawler was at the dock with a large haul of fish taken near the mouth of the Chalumna River. Although pressed for time and not wanting to travel to the docks, she felt that the least she could do for the ship's crew was "to go down and wish them the compliments of the season." [Source: Susan L. Jewett, Washington Post, November 11, 1998]

Among many specimens strewn across the deck, she saw a very strange fish five feet long. "I noticed a blue fin sticking up from beneath the pile," she wrote. "I uncovered the specimen, and, behold, there appeared the most beautiful fish I had ever seen." Courtney-Latimer didn't know what the fish was but had a hunch that she should save it. The local hospital morgue turned her down, as did the town's only cold-storage facility. So she wrapped it in rags soaked in formaldehyde. After several days, it became evident that this method was not sufficiently preserving the fish, so she opted for taxidermy and, as a result, preserved only the skin and a few hard parts.

Using one of the few books available to her, she traced the fish, uncertainly, to the family called coelacanths. The chairman of her museum's board of trustees dismissed it as a rock cod. Undaunted, Courtney-Latimer sent a sketch and description to J.L.B. Smith... When he finally received the letter, Smith was dumbfounded. Could it be true? The drawing clearly depicted a coelacanth. Smith wired Courtney-Latimer: "Save viscera . . . fish interesting." But the message arrived too late; the organs had rotted. Courtney-Latimer's persistence, against great odds, paid off on Feb. 16, 1939, when Smith traveled to New London and confirmed her suspicion. It took 14 years to find another one. Smith searched the waters around South Africa and the eastern coast of Africa, eventually preparing handbills describing the fish and offering a reward.

Second Coelacanth Is Found in the Comoros Island

Anxious to locate another coelacanth, Smith distributed thousand of handbills in English, French and Portuguese along the eastern coast of Africa and the outlying islands. The handbill had a picture of the coelacanth and offered a 100 pound reward. Those handbills made their way to the Comoros Islands, about 300 kilometers north of Madagascar and 300 kilometers east of southeastern Africa, where, finally, on December 20, 1952, fourteen years after the first coelacanth was found, a specimen weighing 20 kilograms (88 pounds) was captured.

Location of the Comoros Islands

Smith was contacted by schooner captain Eric Hunt, who said he had obtained a coelacanth from Comoros Islands fishermen. The fish had been salted and injected with a preservative, but there were no commercial flights between South Africa and the Comoros Islands. Desperate, Smith convinced the South Africa government to fly him to the islands in a military aircraft. The discovery of the second coelacanth became front page news. Smith was so pleased to have finally found his fish, he held it in his hands and wept with joy and slept with the fish at his side until it was safely brought back to South Africa.

The second coelacanth was found off the tiny Comoros Island of Anjouan, about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away from where the first one was found in South Africa. David Attenborough wrote in "Life on Earth": writes: "The first one, it seems, was a stray, for the fishermen of the Comoros said that the coelacanth was no stranger to them. They caught one or two each season in depths of about two or three hundred meters. They did not often fish for them deliberately, for a coelacanth fights hard when it is hooked and a man might have to struggle with one of them for many hours before it could be hauled on board his canoe. And after all that trouble, its flesh is oily and not particularly good to eat. Indeed, almost the most valuable part of the coelacanth anatomy, to the Comorians, is its rough heavy scales. They are very useful for rubbing down inner tubes when mending a puncture.”

Discovery of the Indonesian Coelacanth

In 1997 a honeymooning U.S. marine biologist came across another species of coelacanth — Latimera menadoenis — being rolled on a cart at an Indonesian market. Scientists from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta officially announced the discovery of the Indonesian coelacanth in the September 24, 1998 issue of Nature.

Susan L. Jewett wrote in the Washington Post: She had no way of knowing what would happen. Nobody did. But Arnaz Mehta Erdmann was about to notice something that would rewrite a chapter in the history of biology. Not that she had been looking. In fact, she and her husband Mark were on their honeymoon, strolling through the outdoor market in Manado, a town at the tip of an island called Sulawesi in Indonesia. Hundreds of fishermen work the surrounding Celebes Sea, and on that September day last year the marketplace was teeming with variety. None of the catch, however, looked remotely like the weird thing that Arnaz saw being pushed along in a wooden cart. It was several feet long, with stumpy, lobed appendages where other fish have conventional fins. It was covered with heavily armored scales. Arnaz called Mark's attention to the creature. [Source: Susan L. Jewett, Washington Post November 11, 1998]

To most folks, the fish might have been little more than a curiosity, but Mark was a marine biologist with a recent PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, resulting from his study of mantis shrimps in Indonesia. He recognized it immediately as a coelacanth...But that didn't make sense. Mark had been taught that coelacanths not only were extremely rare but also had never been seen outside the western Indian Ocean. He photographed the creature and asked the fisherman where he had obtained it. Apparently, it was local. Surprised, Mark reluctantly assumed that the living fossils had been observed in the western Pacific and that somehow he had missed hearing of the discovery. Not until he and Arnaz returned to Berkeley did Mark learn that coelacanths had never been sighted east of Madagascar. They definitely weren't supposed to be in Indonesia, about 10,000 (6,000 miles) away. But then, only a few decades before, they weren't supposed to be anywhere at all.

Mark Erdmann returned to northern Sulawesi in November 1997. He “began trying to find the fisherman he had met in the market and to determine whether the fish had been captured in Indonesian waters. He had studied the ecology of coral reefs in the area for seven years and was fluent in the language. After talking to about 200 fishermen, he located the one from the market and three others who convincingly claimed to have captured coelacanths. At that point, an ethical dilemma arose. Mark wanted to retrieve a specimen for science and report the discovery, but he could not induce the local fishermen to fish purposely for a rare and endangered species. His strategy was to provide sufficient compensation to make it worthwhile for the fishermen to bring the fish to him if caught but not so much money that they would be enticed to abandon other pursuits.

On July 30, 1998 Erdmann’s effort paid off . “Sharks bring a handsome price in that part of the world, and Mark's prize surfaced in a deep-water shark net set by fishermen off the volcanic island of Manado Tua in northern Sulawesi. The net, lowered at dusk and raised at dawn, is about 100 meter (330 feet) long and 10 meters (33 feet) high and works by entangling fish that swim into it. On this morning, it yielded a spectacular catch from about 122 meters (400 feet) — a 1.2-meter (four-foot) coelacanth weighing 29 kilograms (64 pounds).

The fisherman, Om Lameh Sonatham, brought the fish, still alive, to Mark's house along the shoreline of the neighboring island. The fish is known locally as raja laut (king of the sea) and apparently has been captured at a rate of two to three a year for several years. The fish lived for nearly six hours, allowing Mark and Arnaz to document photographically its coloration, fin movements and general behavior. Superficially, it looked the same as those found in the Comoros except that the background color was brownish-gray rather than bluish. Although the fish was greatly stressed, as any would be when raised from such depths, it demonstrated quite effectively the typically fantastic movement of its lobed fins.

Discovery a Coelacanth Population in South Africa

In October 2000, deep-water technical divers off Sodwana Bay on South Africa’s stunningly beautiful northeastern coast observed three coelacanths — the first ever by scuba divers. This — led to an expedition the next month that resulted in three of the fish, ranging in length from (one to two meters (three to six feet) being caught on film at a depth of 116 meters (380 feet).

Reuters reported: The footage showed the fish on the edge of a canyon in their classic vertical position, seeming to stand on their heads. There is an organ in the coelacanth’s snout called the rostral organ which we believe is elctro-magnetic, Heemstra said. We believe they use it to scan the bottom for prey.” In the 1950s, specimens were found near the Comoro Islands off Africa's southeast coast, leading scientists to speculate that those netted off South Africa had drifted far from home.[Source: Reuters, February 14, 2001]

Later the coelacanth in Sodwana Bay were studied up close and cataloged with the help of a small submersible. “We are tentatively looking at March or April and hope to have two to three weeks of diving with the craft to begin studying the South African coelacanths,'' said biologist Philip Heemstra with the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology in 2001. “Our preliminary budget is one million rand ($130,000) and that should give us two to three weeks of diving. I'm trying to raise it through corporate sponsors,'' he told Reuters, adding that if it was not possible this year he hoped to have the cash lined up in 2002.

Studying Coelacanth

Nothing was known of the coelacanth's normal habitat and behavior until observations in 1987 by German biologist Hans Fricke of the Max Plank Institute and his research team, using a submersible. Fricke observed and photographed coelacanth's for the first in their natural habitat — lava caves in 168-meter (550-foot) -deep, 15.5̊C (60̊F) waters off the west coast of Grande Comore, the main island in the Comoros Islands. Fricke wrote that he was alerted on where to look by local Comoran fisherman and it took them 22 dives in a small submersible craft to find the fish. [Source: Hans Fricke, National Geographic, June 1988]

Susan L. Jewett wrote in the Washington Post: In the Comoros, recompression efforts have failed, and no specimen has stayed alive for more than a day. As of the late 1990s about 200 specimens had been captured, half of which were available for scientific study. All were from the western Indian Ocean, primarily around two of the Comoro Islands off the northwestern coast of Madagascar. Several "strays" have been captured off South Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar. The total coelacanth population is thought to be 500 or fewer, a number that would threaten the survival of any species. So in accordance with an international treaty known as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, the coelacanth was added to Appendix I (threatened with extinction) in 1989. This treaty forbids international trade for commercial purposes and regulates all trade, including sending specimens to museums, through a system of permits. [Source: Susan L. Jewett, Washington Post November 11, 1998]

Fricke discovered that adult coelacanths cluster in caves during the day and venture into open water at night. Four expeditions eventually took place, and 108 different coelacanths were observed, most at depths ranging from 150 to 250 meters (500 to 820 feet). Juveniles have not been seen from the submersible, so nothing is known of where and how they spend their time. Individual specimens can be recognized by the unique distribution of white blotches on their bodies and can be tracked from day to day when observed from a submersible.

Studying the Indonesian Coelacanth

Susan L. Jewett, who was the Collections Manager, Division of Fishes at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., wrote in the Washington Post: The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, which has the world's largest research collection of preserved fishes, including a coelacanth from the Comoros, was naturally interested in the discovery of the new coelacanth species in Indonesia. In my capacity as manager of the collection, I had been in contact with Mark since shortly after his honeymoon discovery, and we had established an appropriate plan for what to do with a specimen if one was caught. It would have to be preserved properly, but before doing so, tissue samples would be taken for DNA analysis. Those samples would help determine whether the Indonesian coelacanth is a member of the same species as the Comoros specimens. [Source: Susan L. Jewett, Washington Post November 11, 1998]

After advising Mark about appropriate organs to sample, I equipped him with a liquid nitrogen container for storing the tissue samples, and the Smithsonian provided funding to keep a whole specimen frozen until it could be fixed in formaldehyde and permanently preserved in ethyl alcohol. So he was ready on the morning of last July 30 when the critical moment came.

Mark donated the specimen to the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense (MZB), part of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). He also invited me to Indonesia to assist with preservation of the coelacanth and to meet with LIPI officials to discuss a future specimen donation to the Smithsonian. After we shipped the frozen fish to Jakarta, MZB officials transferred the specimen to their new state-of-the-art museum facility in Cibinong between Bogor and Jakarta. There we jointly performed more dissections. Finally, we preserved the coelacanth by injecting formaldehyde, followed by immersion in a solution of formaldehyde. After an appropriate fixation period, the specimen was transferred to ethyl alcohol for long-term storage and display in the MZB. Mark's report of the discovery, coauthored with Roy L. Caldwell, his graduate adviser, and a colleague from LIPI, M. Kasim Moosa, appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of the journal Nature. Unconfirmed sightings are now being reported elsewhere in Indonesia.

Diving with Coelacanth

In May 2001, South African divers in Sodwana Bay filmed a coelacanth at a depth of more than 100 meters (330 feet). "We spotted an adult about 1.3 meters (over four feet) long and filmed it for five minutes," expedition head Pieter Venter told Reuters. "It was fantastic as we were getting a bit nervous after four days of searching, three of them below 100 meters," said Venter. "The visibility and conditions were great." . [Source: Ed Stoddard, Reuters, May 21, 2001]

Venter went to same place the deep water divers first spotted the coelacanth in Sodwana in November 2000, Reuters reported, “and got three of the fish on film, ranging in length from 1.2 to 1.8 meters (five feet to almost six feet) at a depth of 107 meters (350 feet). "We can clearly see the markings on the three fish that were filmed previously and so we will see if this animal is a new individual or one that we have seen before," Venter said.

“The expedition hopes to film more of the creatures so scientists can eventually determine if the Sodwana population is a viable and breeding one or simply a few drifters from the Comoro Islands. Divers can spend only 12 minutes at such depths and may take as long as two hours to go back up to the surface because they need to take decompression stops at different depths. In November one cameramen who filmed the fish died after surfacing without proper decompression — the second of three deaths that have been linked to the search for South Africa’s coelacanths.

During 95 hours of diving in 2010 in the Sodwana Bay area, photographer and marine biologist Laurent Ballesta and his team spent a total of 81 minutes swimming alongside four coelacanths. The expedition team made 21 dives to depths of 91 to 122 meters (300 to 400 feet).. Over the course of four weeks, they spotted coelacanths only six times. For the most part the coelacanths ignored the humans, Ballesta told National Geographic, except for one: "This is the moment he tried to smile to me," he said of one photograph. [Source: Carolyn Butler, National Geographic, March 2011]

Divers Discover a Coelacanth in a Different Part of South Africa

In 2019, two divers discovered a Umzumbe in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Juanita Pienaar wrote in Scuba Diver Live: Umzumbe is not a particularly famous dive location. On November 22, 2019, however, a group of local divers set out to dive a reef that they had never dived before and discovered something remarkable: a coelacanth. Umzumbe residents — and father and son — Mike and Alan Fraser joined Pieter Carstens and Bruce Henderson on what was supposed to be a casual dive. Bruce had planned on diving in Sodwana Bay — specifically to see the coelacanth in the area — but he couldn’t get the required permits in time. He contacted his old friend, Mike and decided to join them on a dive in Umzumbe. [Source: Juanita Pienaar, Scuba Diver Live, Conservation Dive Locations Stories Jul 24, 2020]

On the way to the dive site the divers joked about finding a coelacanth on the reef that they were going to explore. But during the dive the jokes turned to joy. Mike was at the back of the group with the marker buoy while his son, Alan, was swimming toward the reef just ahead of the other divers. Mike heard Alan shout Bruce’s name and thought that there might be a large shark around. When he got closer to the other divers, he recognized that Alan was saying ‘coelacanth.’ Pieter and Bruce were on open circuit trimix while Mike and Alan were diving on rebreathers with trimix diluent.

Mike describes finding the coelacanth as a surreal experience. “I seriously thought that nitrogen narcosis had gotten to me, but when I looked at where Bruce was shining his torch and shone mine in the same direction, I knew that it was for real,” he said. It was the most amazing experience of my 31-year scuba diving career — old four legs in the fin-waving flesh.”

The divers managed to record the single coelacanth (No. 34) with a GoPro 7 on a secret reef about .6 miles (1 kilometers) from the edge of the continental shelf. The maximum depth of the dive was 236 feet (72 meters) with a total bottom time of 15 minutes. The coelacanth was at 223 feet (68 meters), hanging nearly motionless under an overhang. The divers estimated that it was between 6 and 6.5 feet long (1.8 and 2 meters) and weighed around 220 pounds (100 kilograms). Its larger size means that it is likely a female.

The discovery of coelacanth No. 34 indicates that they might live further south than originally thought. Over 80 years ago a coelacanth was caught off East London. This individual was believed to be a stray, but this new discovery might show that there is a resident population in the area, one that purposefully moved to more suitable habitats than the tropics (which they usually prefer). The divers have attempted to return to the dive site but strong currents in the area has made it impossible so far.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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