Recollections of the Past 30 years pursuing Coelacanths
Jerome Hamlin, creator dinofish.com
1986: With the thrill of bringing back the hot rock in mind, I contemplated the idea of a coelacanth sample return mission. There was a huge obstacle. How do you arrange and finance a transport aircraft from the Comoro Islands, in the Indian Ocean, to New York Aquarium in New York City? A little research showed this wasn't impossible. I'd imagined short range puddle jumpers were servicing the Comoros by air from mainland Africa. In fact, weekly Air France flights of 747s were coming and going to the islands from Paris! A 747 could freight load a large unpressurized fish transporter with hardly a notice. The realization that this could be done caused me some anxiety, because now I realized I would have to try it.
An old postcard supplied us with an early image of a coelacanth
Research revealed I would not be the first to launch a coelacanth expedition or captive return project. In the 1950s, Jaques Cousteau visited the Comoros more than once in unsuccessful attempts by his team to film coelacanths. They couldn't locate them, and no local catches occurred during the visits. In 1964, Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Center, in cooperation with the National Science Foundation launched the "Marine Physiological Expedition to Madagascar and Iles Comores." The expedition tried unsuccessfully to retrieve a live coelacanth in the waters around the Comorian island of Anjouan and return it to the US for examination. In 1966, a French photojournalist, Jacques Stevens, claimed to have filmed and photographed a coelacanth in its natural habitat, but scientists disputed the claims, asserting that the fish was caught by a local fisherman, then filmed in shallow water. That same year, the first frozen coelacanth made its way to the U.S., in a sleeping bag, for study by Keith Thompson at Yale. In 1968, A further visit to the Comoros by Cousteau's Calypso failed to locate the fish for filming. In 1972, a joint Royal Society French/British/American expedition visited the Comoros and fished unsuccessfully for coelacanths. They did, however, obtain specimens on hand, and film a native caught coelacanth dying in a hastily established tank. In 1972, The Vancouver Aquarium made an unsuccessful bid to capture a live coelacanth. Team members returned with a purchased preserved specimen. This was the first concerted capture and return attempt. In 1975-76, Steinhart Aquarium of San Francisco, conducted an expedition to capture a live coelacanth. They were unsuccessful, but an important monograph on the coelacanth was published by the afiliated California Academy of Sciences. This was such an important project that it would become a central focus of my studies. In 1979, Peter Scoones, a photographer/cinematographer for David Attenborough's "Life on Earth" BBC series filmed and photographed a coelacanth caught by a local fisherman as it died in the shallows. During the early 1980's, a group called the Japanese Scientific Expedition of the Coelacanth, (JASEC), under the direction of Kimihei Shinonoi, began visiting the Comoros. They purchased study specimens and establish economic links between the Comoros and Japan. Several papers resulted. (Visits by JASEC continued sporadically through the 80's, and into the '90's.) In 1981, Belgian Zoological Expeditions visited the Comoros and prepared a report on the coelacanth. Finally, in July 1986, French diver Jean Louis Geraud, living and working in the Comoros, filmed a coelacanth which had been caught and then released at about 20 meters. This film was for sale to the Japanese.
I began to pitch the coelacanth project to members of the Explorers Club and the director of New York Aquarium. I had met the director after selling the Aquarium one of my home robots to perform in its sea lion training shows. The director was interested as were three members of the E.C., one of whom had been on the Ecuador volcanic rock collecting trip, and another who had been on an expedition to collect cling fish in Argentina. That member worked for a company with a Nexus connection, and he quickly ran a search on coelacanths which provided us with a list of publications.
I focused on the Steinhart Aquarium project and publication of ten years earlier as they were attempting exactly what we were going to try. My plan was to analyze why they failed and work around those problems. Their project was under the direction of the brilliant John McKosker, who also put together the follow up monograph on coelacanths. Once in the Comoros, they located an inlet where a fish could be sequestered once captured. They offered the fisherman who brought one in alive an all expenses paid pilgrimage to Mecca. They also noted the seasonal catch fluctuations for coelacanths, which put the most catches in the Northern hemispheres fall. (The Comoros are a couple degrees below the equator.) Another observation was that, by anecdote, it appeared that a native handline fisherman spent an hour struggling with a hooked coelacanth to bring it to the surface, thereby exhausting both the fisherman and the fish. This fatigue would hasten the fish’s demise on the surface. During their month's visit no coelacanth’s were caught.
I drew a few conclusions from their project. First, loading a project into a single visit was a mistake. Ours would involve a series of recurring visits. Second, if we could catch the fish ourselves using modern fishing equipment, we could shorten the time to bring it up and so reduce stress and enhance the survivability of the fish. But for this we would need fish locating equipment, the best fish finding sonar available. Third, rather than sequestering a fish in an inlet or cove, in such variable ocean conditions, we should have a fish transporter with associated life support equipment available to us on site. I knew just the person to solve the fishing equipment and time to top problem: Peter, a sport fisherman I knew from summers on the Canadian lakes. He was the most intense fisherman I’d ever met, landing half a dozen bigmouth bass while my lure was still stuck in the weeds. He was enthralled with the idea of applying his skills to a scientific objective, signing onto the project immediately. For the other technical needs, I would reach out to the New York Aquarium and private industry. We decided a reconnaissance trip to the Comoros was needed. At least three of us were available to make the trip in the fall of 1986.