Discovery of the 'NEW'
South African Coelacanths


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          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.

          Dives by the submersible, Jago, contnued, until the last in the spring of '04. In May '05. A Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) under the direction of Dr. Kerry Sink,replaced the submersible Jago in '05's investigation of the South African coelacanths. Eight coelacanths were sited at 110m on one dive, and one on a dive the day before. Some were the same individuals identified by Jago and some were new. The "Falcon" ROV was said to be less invasive (and less expensive!) than the sub, but it's data acquisition capabilities seemed more limited.  

          In a Brief Communication to the science magazine, Nature (Vol 435|16 June 2005May '05), the Fricke Dive Group and two German DNA researchers, Manfred Schartl and Ute Hornung, reported that the recently discovered East African coelacanths are genetically similar if not identical to the Comoran coelacanths. Their conclusion was based on analysis of tissue samples from both groups. The implication of this finding is that because of prevailing currents, the East African colonies were founded by "dead end drifters" from the Comoros. (This, of course, is a disappointment to many South Africans who were hoping for their own species!) The writers speculate further that all the Western Indian Ocean coelacanths may have arrived by drifters from the Pacific province far to the East in the past several million years. (Hence the Indonesian discoveries.)

     However, in November 2011, researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and other entities said the newly found breeding group of coelacanths to the north at Tanga, Tanzania, has existed for more than 200,000 years without genetic contact with other groups.

     Tokyo Institute of Technology Prof. Norihiro Okada and his colleagues analyzed genes of more than 20 coelacanths caught off Tanga, northern Tanzania, and nearby sites. The areas are nearly 1,000 kilometers north-northwest of the Comoros Islands.

     The results showed the fish belong to a population genetically distinct from that off Comoros Islands.

    The two groups seem to have separated 200,000 to 2 million years ago, the researchers said. The implications of this conclusion for the Sodwana coelacanths to the South, is unclear and may be in dispute.

         Occassional technical dives continued at Sodwana. In  Feb. '07: Divers claim to have sighted two coelacanths in plunge at Sodwana, South Africa, a known coelacanth habitat:

     From Sheldon Brown:

         Our first dive was an 83m dive on rebreathers and Twin sets. This dive became the highlight of the trip when we spotted 2 x Coelacanth at 83.3 MSW. The first was approx. 1.6 m long and the second about 1.5 meter long, and estimated weight probably at about 80-100kg. They were orientated , head down in almost vertical positions. The water temp at 19 Deg 83m and 26 Deg C on the surface. We kept our distance from the fish and they were quite undisturbed by the rebreathers. Because of the depth we soon had to leave to adhere to our run times, of 115 minutes, but for all of us on the dive, it was definitely a dive to remember!

         On May 20, 2009, Peter Timm, one of the discoverers of the Sodwana coelacanths, sighted two coelacanths on 20 May 2009. He was diving with three Trimix divers from Andromede Oceanologie, a French company led by the biologist and photographer Laurent Ballesta. The three French divers followed Peter into a cave in Jesser canyon and photographed two coelacanths on their first attempt. Good images of the right side of both animals were taken. These were used to update the catalogue of images of South African coelacanths. Initial analyses suggested that both animals were new individuals not seen by the Jago team or previous Trimix dive expeditions, but the images still needed to be compared with those taken during the 2005 Remotely Operated Vehicle based expedition. The larger of the two was approximately 1.5 m and the other was estimated at slightly smaller than this (around 1.3m). The water temperature was about 19 degrees C. Divers also saw yellow fin soldiers, pineapplefish and contour rockcod in the cave with the coelacanths. (courtesy Rk Nulens via SAIAB).

          During a series of dives in January and February of 2010, a team led by Laurent Ballesta, took a series of photographs that were published in National Geographic: March 2011. A film aired in the spring of 2012 on the National Geographic Channel.

        Some researchers (Mark Erdmann, for exapmple) believe that the Sodwana coelacanths can be found at these relatively shallow depths , because the water is colder than in the more tropical equatorial waters. In this view, the fish is not viable above 20 degrees Centigrade. But others (Richard Pyle) claim the temeratures at Sodwana are similar in the Comoros due to thermoclines.

    During the ensuing years, observation and research continued by divers, rovs, and submersibles, with emphasis somewhat diluted by coelacanth discoveries further up the East African coast.

     In November, 2019, hundreds of kilometers south of the known colonies at Sodwana, diver Alan Fraser, and a group of friends, spotted a coelacanth near Puluma.  The sighting on South Africa's east coast, south of Durban, is reportedly the second shallowest ever recorded at 72 meters, and occurred in a submarine canyon near the mouth of a river. Apparently the group had been unable to get diving permits for Sodwana. There will undoubtedly be follow up dives in the area.


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