Discovery of the 'NEW'
South African Coelacanths

The living coelacanth (as opposed to the 125 fossil species!) was first identified by JLB Smith as a fish trawled off South Africa in 1938. But no more appeared there, even though Smith had heard rumors of other sightings of similar fishes found washed up on the shores. Indeed, his own searches of the waters up the East African coast yielded no clues, and Smith began to suspect his fish had drifted down from the north on currents in the Mozambique Channel. This seemed to have been confirmed when Erik Hunt, posting Smith's reward notice in the Comoro Islands northwest of Madagascar, discovered that a fish regularly caught there, and known locally as 'Gombessa', was none other than the living coelacanth. Thus, in 1952, the Comoro islands became established as the home turf of the coelacanth, and this premise went unchallenged until the 1990's, when two of the fish were trawled off Madagascar. However, these were also thought to have been drifters. Then in 1997-8, Mark Erdmann and his wife Arnaz discovered two coelacanths. The fish were netted off Manado Tua Island, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, thousands of miles East of the Comoros. These had to be part of a distinct non-Comoran population, and preliminary DNA studies indicated a new species.

Reports without material evidence continued to seep into of sightings by divers of coelacanths in shallow water in the vicinity of Madagascar. As coelacanths were only known to live at depths of several hundred feet (250m-700m) in the Comoros, these accounts seemed to strain credibility. 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. But lightening struck quite accidentally on October 28th, 2000. Off the Northeast coast South African town of St Lucia, just south of the Mozambique border, in KwaZulu-Natal, is Sodwana Bay, part of the St. Lucia Marine Protected Area. This is a World Heritage site comprising a wetland and marine reserve known for its reefs and SCUBA diving. Two deep submarine canyons indent the continental shelf near Sodwana Bay from a depth of 1000 metres. There pleasure divers Pieter Venter, Peter Timm and Etienne le Roux made a dive to 104 metres (320ft) using a mixture of diving gasses. "I saw this eye reflecting towards me and that made me curious," Venter said later. "I approached…and underneath an overhang, I saw a fish of about two metres long." After several seconds he realized it was a coelacanth. "I did not expect anything like this. I was not trying to find it." He signaled Timm and they saw two more. They had no cameras. "It was like seeing a UFO without taking a photograph." Timm took some convincing to realize what they had seen. The group decided they would return with cameras. This would be the shallowest confirmed sighting of coelacanths.  

Calling themselves "SA Coelacanth Expedition 2000" the group, with several additional members, returned in late November. On Sunday November 26, they performed a first dive without seeing coelacanths. On Monday, the 27th , Pieter Venter, Gilbert Gunn and cameramen Christo Serfontein and Dennis Harding, assisted by a five member team, went down again to a depth of 115 metres (350ft) using four different mixes of gas for a dive lasting 134 minutes. They had a bottom-time of 15 minutes. Moving from cavern to cavern, 12 minutes into the dive they found three coelacanths. The largest was between 1.5 and 1.8 metres long, the other two 1.2 metres and 1 metre. Whether these were the same three seen on the earlier dive or a different group making a total of six was not confirmed. The fish swam heads down and appeared to be feeding off of ledges. The cameramen took video footage and still photos of the three. Then disaster struck. Assisting Christo, who had passed out under water, 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 as fellow divers tried to resuscitate him. Apparently, he had suffered a cerebral embolism. Christo recovered after being taken underwater for decompression.  

The find was big news in South Africa. Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Mohammed Valli Moosa took immediate measures to further protect the fish and put it off limits to divers without special permits while research protocols were established. Fishing in the region was already prohibited. Tentative plans got underway for a three-week visit in March of 2001 of the submersible Jago, which had completed much of the Comoros research. (There are as many as 13 underwater canyons between the Tugela River mouth and Kosi Bay in the north extending beyond the Sodwana site- quite a search area!) Prior to that, a South African project with the "Delta" research submersible planned dives for January 2001, which were scuttled by the park authorities. Both intended to assess the population numbers. There were even plans afoot for an underwater TV camera to broadcast live coelacanth images to a mall or even online. The original dive group planned a new survey and tissue sample collection- a program setback by the death of yet another one of their members following a test dive at an inland sinkhole. The group returned to Sodwana and dove successfully in May 2001, despite interference from park bureacrats. Additional coelacanths were filmmed and a couple were found to be matches from the previous dives. In March-April 2002, the Jago Submersible and Fricke Dive Team descended into the depths off Sodwana and observed 15 coelacanths, one pregnant. Again some were repeats indicating likely residency. In all, 18 individuals were identified. Tissue samples were taken using a dart probe. The question :" Is this a new population of coelacanths, a new species, or a group of strays swept down the Mozambique channel in the supposed manner of the 1938 find?" was resolved by DNA analysis in Germany, which concluded that though the South African colonies were breeding groups, they were genetically identical to the Comorian fish.They were satellite colonies.

Submersible and ROV observations of the Sodwana coelacanths continued. Restrictions on diving in the area were tightened by park authorities, perhaps, in part, because the original discovery dive group capitalized on their find with an internet pay per view scheme in which videos from the second dive were rushed online and could be seen for a fee. Meanwhile, the publicity of the "new" South African coelcanths generated some changes at the fabled J.L.B Snith Institute in Grahamstown, South Africa. The Institute politically corrected its name to "SAIAB"(South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity), and hosted offices for a new corporate funded program called "ACEP", (African Coelacanth Ecosystem Program.)This program, under the initial direction of Dr.Tony Ribbink, held conferences, organized field research, operated a student teaching vessel, and monitored coelacanth reports from Africa and the Comoros. As the initial enthusiasim of the discovery wore off, funding was harder to come by.


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