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Articles Blog

The Coelacanth

Karyn Planett

Mysterious Fish of the Comoro Islands

Before the morning sun raises his head above the watery horizon, the fishermen of the Comoro Islands take to the seas of the Indian Ocean’s Mozambique Channel. And like their forefathers before them, their crafts are not usually motorized or equipped with sonar devices. These men hold to tradition with their narrow, hand-hewn outrigger pirogues (called galawas) that bob around in the surf like wine corks. They have only their paddles, the tides, and generations of knowledge to guide them. Most search for seafood they can sell in the busy marketplace. Yet each Comoran knows of the marvels that swim below. They all can recite the tale of the coelacanth. 

Back From The Dead 

Scientists had long been very familiar with a 6-foot-long fish that once swam the depths. His unique form had been immortalized in stone, fossilized there millions of years earlier. Some of these fossils had been carbon-dated to establish their exact age and the “youngest” one was determined to be at least 60 million years old. Others dated back some 400 million years. 

Therefore, without any contemporary live sightings, scientists long believed that this fish had been extinct for at least 60 million years. That fish was a coelacanth. 

All that changed when an unsuspecting crew aboard a trawler sailing out of East London, South African managed to snag and land a living, fighting, breathing Coelacanth… and ichthyologists around the world gasped in unison. The year was 1938. 

A Professor J. L. B. Smith sped over from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa and decreed that this fish was indeed a coelacanth, although different from its fossilized forefathers in certain details. Therefore, he named this one Latimeria chalumnae and the hunt was on for more coelacanths. Smith went so far as to post a reward for any successful catches. Yet, despite his efforts, the seas yielded nothing more for fourteen long years. 

Then, in 1952, a fellow named Eric Hunt bought a coelacanth from a Comoro Island fisherman and alerted Smith immediately. The elated Professor enlisted the aid of a South African military aircraft to carry him to the Comores quickly to retrieve the preserved prize. With photos splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world, Smith’s return to South Africa made global headlines. 

Technology Advances the Search       

Twenty-five years passed before another coelacanth was found, despite desperate efforts by many dedicated researchers. Again, the elusive fish was spotted off the Comoro Islands in the depths of the Indian Ocean. A researcher by the name of Hans Fricke had traveled from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in West Germany to the Comores. He was accompanied a crew of marine specialists. They not only made visual contact through the window of Fricke’s submersible but actually photographed the coelacanth as it swam at a depth of 550 feet.           

Fricke was thrilled for, during his previous two-dozen dives, he had come up “empty-handed.” After studying this fish for nearly two decades, the historic moment had at long last arrived when he actually made visual contact with the object of his intense research. During the months that followed, the team observed a total of six coelacanths and recorded their unusual behavior, which includes swimming with a multi-finned flailing motion and… standing on their heads on the ocean floor! 

Spared From The Frying Pan 

The fact that this fish lives at great depths, and is a bit too oily for most people’s tastes, has spared him from the frying pan. The few coelacanths that have been caught over the years have usually been tossed back. The coelacanth was of little interest to those who knew nothing of his uniqueness. Those who did know how valuable their catch was were, unfortunately, unable to keep the fish alive long enough to turn it over to marine experts.           

Oddly enough, those few coelacanths that were brought ashore in the Comoro Islands were dried and their scratchy scales used for sandpaper! 

Why Did They Survive? 

Fricke and his team observed that coelacanths live in waters that are deep, cold, and lacking abundant food. He theorized that other species might find this environment too unfriendly and thus migrate elsewhere. Fricke also questioned whether their slow movements might actually reduce their metabolic rate, simultaneously reducing their nutritional requirements. 

Whatever the truth of their survival is, these fascinating creatures lived long before the dinosaurs roamed the earth. And they continue to splash about long after the last dinosaur stepped into an unfriendly tar pit. So Mother Nature endowed the coelacanth with something so unique that its secrets may one day unravel the mystery of the evolution of life on earth, which scientists still debate in laboratories around the world.