Discovery of the Coelacanth

Marjorie Courtenay Latimer
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In 1938, thirty two-year-old Marjorie Courtenay Latimer was the curator of a tiny museum in the port town of East London, northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. She had befriended a local seaman, Captain Hendrick Goosen, of the trawler Nerine, which fished the nearby coastal waters of the Indian Ocean. When he put into port the captain made a frequent practice of having the dockman call Miss Latimer to come look over the Nerine's catch. She was welcome to take any unusual specimens she might want for her museum.
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On December 23rd, 1938, the Nerine entered port after a stint trawling off the mouth of the nearby Chalumna River. The dockman called Marjorie, who was busy mounting a reptile collection , but felt she ought at least go down to the docks to wish the crew of the Nerine a merry Christmas. She took a taxi, delivered her greetings, and was about to leave when, according to her account, she noticed a blue fin protruding beneath a pile of rays and sharks on the deck. Pushing the overlaying fish aside revealed, as she would later write, "the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings." Marjorie had no idea what the fish was, but knew it must go back to the museum at once. At first the taxi driver refused to have the reeking, five foot fish in his cab, but after a heated discussion, he drove Marjorie and her specimen back to the museum.

Raking through the few reference books on hand, Marjorie found a picture that , she has said, led her to a seemingly impossible conclusion. Her specimen bore similarities to a prehistoric fish, particularly in the structure of the head and the tri-lobed shape of the tail. She made a rather crude sketch of the creature, which she mailed, along with a description, to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a forty one- year-old persnickety chemistry teacher with a locally well knowh passion for fish, at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, some fifty miles south of East London. Smith, however, was away for Christmas holidays, correcting exams at his seaside getaway. Meanwhile, Courtenay's museum director in East London was not impressed with the find. He dismissed the fish as a common rock cod- a grouper!

But on January 3, 1939, Miss Latimer heard back from Smith in a now famous cable: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED." However, in an attempt to preserve the fish by mounting it, the innards had been discarded. A search for them in the museum and town trash bins proved fruitless. Even photographs taken of the preparation had somehow been spoiled.

Smith, anxiously bidding his time, wondering how he could incorporate the possibility of such a discovery into an already overloaded dual career, did not arrive at the East London museum until February 16. The professor, a thin wirey man of about 5'7", sporting, as was his custom, a close-cropped crew cut, khaki bush shorts and sandals, viewed the mounted specimen, exclaiming, according to one account, "I always knew somewhere or somehow, a primitive fish of this nature would appear." Smith identified the fish immediately as a coelacanth, that is as a member of what must be a still living coelacanth species. The fish would soon be called the "most important zoological find of the century" (an acolade that might now go to the Martian microfossils if they check out.) A living dinosaur, it was said, would be no more amazing than this incredible discovery.

After a local newspaper reporter was allowed to take a single photograph of the mounted coelacanth, the picture soon appeared around the world. Smith, Courtenay-Latimer, and the coelacanth became overnight celebrities. When a public viewing for one day only was arranged, 20,000 visitors are said to have shown up.  


But the story of the coelacanth's "discovery" does not end there. With no internal organs left from the East London specimen, many questions remained unanswered. Smith was soon obsessed with finding a second intact specimen. Speculating that the fish had drifted down from the north on the Mozambique current, he had a reward notice with a picture of the first specimen posted aong the East African coast up as far as Kenya. A decade went by with no response. Smith continued a long term project of cataloging the fishes of the Indian Ocean, always proselytizing about the coelacanth wherever he went. It was during this period that the myth of the coelacanth as a deep ocean fish took hold in the popular and scientific imagination. Expeditions from Europe scoured the ocean depths in search of coelacanths. But Smith remained convinced that the fish's physiognomy and blue color made it a lower reef predator and not a true deep water fish.

Captain Eric Hunt, a dapper thirty eight-year-old Briton who owned and helmed a vessel, the Nduwaro, trading among Zanzibar, Madagascar, and the Comoros, a group of small islands in the Mozambique Channel belonging to France at the time, attended one of Smith's lectures in Zanzibar. An intelligent, curious fellow, with a penchant for marine aquaria, he quickly became fascinated with the whereabouts of the coelacanth. Hunt offered to post Smith's reward notices among the Comoro islands, which are midway between Tanzania and Madagascar. Smith obliged and with the help of local authorities, the Comoros were soon plastered with coelacanth reward notices.

On December 21, 1952, fourteen years after the discovery of the first living coelacanth, Captain Hunt, returning to the port of Mutsamudu on the Comorian island of Anjouan, was approached by two Comorians carrying a hefty bundle. One, Ahamadi Abdallah, had caught by hand-line what the locals called a "mame" or "Gombessa", a heavy grouper-like fish that turned up on their lines from time to time. The fisherman was accompanied by an astute school teacher, Affane Mohamed, who had noticed that this was the same fish pictured on the reward notices Hunt had posted. Hunt was ecstatic and arranged for Smith's award of one hundred British pounds to be paid to them. As there was no better preservative available at Mutsamudu, Hunt and his crew salted the fish, then sailed with it to the harbour at Dzaoudzi, an islet off the Comorian island of Mayotte, where he bought formalin from the director of medical services. Already aware of the scientific importance of the internal organs, Hunt injected the preservative into the specimen, then cabled Smith in South Africa. He awaited Smith's response.

The French authorities at nearby Pamanzi were not sure that this creature was indeed the fabled coelacanth. Nevertheless, concerned that they might be missing out on something important, cables were dispatched to French scientific authorities in Madagascar. But no message came back. Hearing nothing, the Pamanzi authorities decided to take posession of the fish anyway if Smith did not come for it personally. Hunt sent a frantic second cable to Smith, urging him to fly to the Comoros immediately.

For J.L.B. Smith this find, if indeed it were a coelacanth, would consumate a fourteen year obsession. Worried all the time that Hunt's specimen might not be what he claimed, Smith negotiated with Prime Minister Malan of South Africa, for a plane to fly him to the Comoros. Milan, out of the capital on yet another Christmas holiday, consented. By now Smith was a nervous wreck, hardly amused when the flight crew of a DC3 "Dakota" put at his disposal for the trip, faked a radio message that French fighters had scrambled to intercept them.

Having landed in the Comoros, it was a quick trip from the airstrip down to the harbor at Pamanzi where the Nduwaro was moored. When Smith saw the dead fish he wept. It was indeed a coelacanth. He now had his second specimen, organs in tact, and the familiarity of the natives with this creature meant that at least one location of the coelacanth's habitat had been discovered. The Dakota soon left the Comoros with Smith and "his" fish, returning to another round of world wide publicity.

In the aftermath, the French felt cheated and closed the coelacanth to non French researchers until the islands became independent in the 1970's. Four years after the "discovery" of the second coelacanth, Eric Hunt disappeared at sea after his schooner ran aground on the reefs of the Geyser Bank between the Comoros and Madagascar. He was never found. J.L.B. Smith wrote his account of the coelacanth story in the book "Old Fourlegs," first published in 1956. His book, Sea Fishes of the Indian Ocean, meticulously illustrated and co-authored by his wife Margaret, remains the standard ichthyological reference for the region. In spite of the controversies that followed, he was content with his role in the fabulous coelacanth episodes. Smith died in 1968. Captain Hendrick Goosen passed away just after the fiftieth anniversary of the "discovery" of the coelacanth in 1988. And Marjorie Courtenay Latimer was alive and well and still living in East London as of March 1998, the lone survivor of the greatest fish story ever told!


 coelacanth - A Living Fossil

Imagine the excitement that was felt when a prehistoric fish, thought to be extinct for over 60 million years, was discovered alive in the waters off the tip of South Africa. No-one had suspected such a find, especially as palaeontologists and zoologists alike had been studying the fossilised remains of similarly ancient fish for years previous to the discovery. In terms of evolution, the ancient fish was more closely related to land animals than to fish . This find was acknowledged throughout the world as one of the greatest zoological discoveries ever made.

The coelacanth fish (until 1938) was thought to have died out during the great extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. It was a stroke of luck that the fish was caught in fishing nets trawling the African coastline. If it were not for its strange appearance, the skipper of the trawler (Captain Hendrick Goosen) would most probably have left it buried beneath the fish that he had caught earlier that day. Its distinctive bulging blue eyes and heavy bluish scales alerted him to something quite unusual. Marjorie Courtenay Latimer, curator of a tiny museum in the port town of East London at South Africa's southernmost tip, was known by the locals to be fascinated by unusual marine fish. She was always anxious to increase her collection of specimens to show off the local wildlife found in the area. She was often called upon to inspect something slightly out of the ordinary, and that day was no different to any other. On reaching the trawler she was completely overwhelmed by what she saw, and later wrote that the fish was "the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings." She transported the specimen back to the museum and at once set about contacting Professor J. L. B. Smith, a lecturer at Rhodes University known to have a passion for fish. On receiving the news, his response was immediate: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED." However, in an attempt to preserve the fish by mounting it, the innards had been discarded.

The fish was a so-called "living fossil". It was identified as belonging to the class of fish that appeared 350 million years ago, being closely related to the first four-limbed land animal. By studying the fish it was apparent that it used its strange fins for swimming in a motion similar to walking. The lobe-like fins actually had jointed bones, like arms and legs.

On finding out that the specimen had no internal organs, Smith became obsessed in finding a second specimen. Prepared to pay a reward of £100, he patiently waited for a further discovery. Fourteen years later, on 21st December1952, a fisherman brought another specimen (caught off the Comoros Islands to the northwest of Madagascar) to Captain Hunt, a young captain who was assisting Smith with his search for the coelacanth. On recognising the fish, Hunt immediately arranged for Smith's reward of £100 to be paid. Smith was instantly sent for, and within a couple of days he arrived. He had been waiting for this moment since 1938, and the anticipation of seeing this specimen was just too much. When he saw the dead fish he wept with happiness. It was indeed a coelacanth. He now had his second specimen with its organs intact. The familiarity of the Comoro natives with this specimen meant that at least one location of the coelacanth's habitat had been discovered. In 1956 Smith published a book on the coelacanth called "Old Four Legs".

Since the 1952 discovery there have been several coelacanth sightings. In 1987 the coelacanth was filmed underwater in its natural habitat for the first time.
The coelacanth will always be considered a remarkable discovery. Somebody once said that finding a living dinosaur would be no more amazing than the finding of the coelacanth.

Patrick Goosen

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