The Coelacanth | A Fish Caught in Time


On December 21st, 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young museum curator in East London, South Africa, received a call from one Captain Goosen, the skipper of a local fishing trawler. He had just returned from a trip up the coast to the mouth of the Chalumna River, he said, and had netted an unusual fish that he thought might be interesting to the museum.

It was nearly Christmas, and she was busy with a number of other tasks, but Courtenay-Latimer finally decided the captain's catch was worth a quick look. She took a taxi to the docks, clambered aboard the trawler and there, lying on the deck, she found what she later described as 'the most beautiful fish I ever saw'.

It was around five foot long, covered in overlapping, bony scales, and had four limb-like fins and a tapering, solid tail with a tuft at the end of it. Intrigued, Courtenay-Latimer bundled the huge, smelly carcass into a taxi and brought it back to the museum.

Once there, she was faced with the difficult task of preserving the fish. She had no cold storage facilities in which to keep it, and after a futile call to the local mortuary, she turned to the local taxidermist for help. The outer fish was eventually preserved using formalin.

Curiously excited by her discovery, the young curator sent a letter containing a sketch of the fish to Professor J L B Smith, a chemistry letter at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and amateur ichthyologist. He was at the time enjoying a Christmas break at his holiday home, and her letter didn't reach him for almost thirteen days. While Courtenay-Latimer waited impatiently for a response, the internal organs of the fish began to rot and had to be thrown away.

When Dr Smith finally received the letter and set eyes on the picture Marjorie had drawn of the fish, he recounted that 'I stared and stared, at first in puzzlement. I did not know any fish of our own, or indeed of any seas, like that; it looked more like a lizard.

And then a bomb seemed to burst in my brain, and beyond that sketch and the paper of the letter, I was looking at a series of fishy creatures that flashed up as on a screen, fishes no longer here, fishes that lived in dim past ages gone, and of which only fragmentary remains in rocks are known'.

Two weeks later, Dr Smith arrived at the East London museum to see the mounted fish specimen with his own eyes, and 'the sight hit me like a white-hot blast'. It was indeed a coelacanth, and he christened it Latimeria Chalumnae in honour of its discoverer.

For what Captain Goosen had trawled up by accident off the coast of East London was none other than a coelacanth, a fish that was thought to have been extinct for seventy million years. It was the greatest zoological discovery of the century, and Smith himself likened it to 'coming across a herd of dinosaurs grazing in some remote forest clearing'.

Of all the fossil fish that could have mysteriously been resurrected in the modern age, the coelacanth was one of the most interesting. Its fleshy, limb-like fins, which led Smith to christen it 'old fourlegs', were possibly a precursor to the organisms that eventually left the water and began to walk on land - in other words, the ancestors of mammals and mankind.

The coelacanth represented, literally, the first steps in the history of evolution. When the fish was put on display in the East London Museum (where it remains to this day), people queued around the block to see it. The fish was dubbed 'the missing link' by the press, and Smith received angry letters from hard-line, evolution-denying South African Calvinists who had yet to accept the idea that the world was millions of years old.

But without the soft parts of the fish, Smith was unable to rest easily with his historic discovery. He began an obsessive search for another specimen of the fish that was to consume his mind for the rest of his life.

For fourteen long years he and his wife Margaret travelled the coast of Africa, scouring every tiny fishing village from South Africa in the south to Mogadishu in the north, in a quest to find another coelacanth. Thousands of leaflets were printed with pictures of the fish and text in several languages, promising lavish rewards for anyone who turned in a fresh specimen. No-one replied.

In December of 1952, a fisherman named Ahamadi Abdallah set out fishing as usual in his wooden canoe from Domoni, a town on the south coast of Anjouan in the Comoro Islands. When he dragged up his line, he found a large, unusual looking fish known locally as a gombessa.

He wasn't too pleased - gombessa flesh didn't taste good and was too oily for cooking. Once ashore, he was about to start cleaning and gutting the fish, he happened upon a local teacher named Affane Mohamed, who was passing on his way to the barber's.

Something about Abdallah's fish stirred his memory - wasn't someone looking for a fish like that? He took Abdallah to see the poster pinned up nearby. Abdallah was incredulous - who would want to pay money for a useless fish like that? - but was persuaded to take the fish to the authorities just in case. He heaved it onto his shoulders and set out for the capital, Mutsumudu.

Here he found a sea captain named Eric Hunt, who had been assisting the Smiths in their quest by distributing their leaflets wherever he docked his ship. Hunt took one look at the fish and immediately recognised it as a coelacanth.

Trembling with haste, as the fish had already begun to putrefy, he paid Abdallah the reward and dispatched telegrams to Smith, thousands of miles away in South Africa: 'Have five foot specimen Coelacanth injected formalin here' and 'Charter plane immediately'.

Smith received news of his second coelacanth on Christmas Eve. He knew that time was of the essence - not only would the coelacanth rot if left too long, but the French authorities who at the time controlled the Comoros might intervene and prevent a South African claiming it. This was a matter of national as well as scientific pride.

Desperately Smith started placing calls to the South African cabinet, most of whom were abroad on their Christmas holidays. Finally, growing increasingly frantic, he placed a call to the Prime Minister himself, D.F. Malan. The odds were long - Malan was a fundamentalist, anti-British and deeply religious Afrikaner, but there was nothing left to do but to try.

Late in the evening on Boxing Day, Smith placed a call to the premier at his holiday cottage near Cape Town, and spoke to his wife. She refused to disturb her husband's sleep by calling him to the telephone. Smith put down the receiver and slumped in his chair, convinced that his fish was lost.

Suddenly the telephone rang again. It was the Prime Minister. He'd been woken by the ringing of the telephone and, by an incredible coincidence, had a copy of the professor's book on holiday with him. Leafing through the coelacanth section, he declared 'the man who wrote this book would not ask my help at a time like this unless it was important. Call him back'.

Malan agreed to mobilise an Air Force Dakota to fly Smith to the Comoros and claim the fish. A bemused crew of airmen arrived in Durban, still unsure why they had been called away from their holidays and commanded at the highest level to take part in a mission to bring back a dead fish.

The military commanders in Mozambique were equally sceptical, and nearly refused the plane permission to land and refuel. Such a preposterous story must surely be a cover-up for some sinister spying mission. Smith fretted in the hold of the plane while negotiations took place - he had staked his reputation on this venture and faced lifelong humiliation if he failed to bring back a coelacanth.

Eventually, however, Smith's plane made it to the Comoros, and Smith rushed to Hunt's vessel to see his precious fish. As Hunt's crew slowly unpacked the fish from its box, Smith stood sweating, waiting to see he was to be proved 'a fool or a prophet'.

A prophet it was - there before him, well preserved, was the world's second coelacanth. Smith returned to South Africa in a blaze of glory and flew immediately to Cape Town to show the fish to the Prime Minister, surrounded by popping flashbulbs and related the story of the fish's rescue in an emotional broadcast on national radio.

Over the years that followed, dozens of further coelacanth specimens were netted off the Comoros, and their discovery put this small group of islands on the world map. Fish enthusiasts still visit to this day, using specially adapted submarines to try to find the fish in their natural environment.

For many years it was thought that the coelacanth was endemic to the Comoros, and that the original specimen found by Marjorie Latimer had simply gone astray. In recent times, however, coelacanths have been discovered not only off the coasts of South Africa, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya, but also in the waters of Indonesia. 'Old Fourlegs' is now a protected species and looks set to be around for another few million years.

Copyright Gemma Pitcher 2004

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