The Man Who Swims With Coelacanths
More than seven decades later, the words have the same urgency as when they rolled off Marjorie Courtinay-Latimer’s telegraph machine and into history:
MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED.
Courtinay-Latimer was the young curator of a natural history museum on South Africa’s east coast. The message came from J.L.B. Smith, an icthyologist to whom she’d turned when, shortly before Christmas in 1938, local fishermen brought her a fish unlike any they’d ever seen.
Caught at a depth of 240 feet, it was five feet long, covered in bony scales and had fins reminiscent of legs. Courtinay-Latimer immediately sent a sketch to Smith, who thought it looked like a coelacanth. There was just one catch: Coelacanths were extinct, and had been for 70 million years.
The sketch sent by Marjorie Courtinay-Latimer to J.L.B. Smith. South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity
Smith’s famous cable came too late, as Courtinay-Latimer didn’t have an aquarium large enough to preserve the fish. But even as they despaired, it was just weeks before another arrived.
Far from being extinct, coelacanths were actually caught with some regularity by native fishermen of the Comoros Islands, on whose rocky undersea slopes they’d lived since swimming with dinosaurs. The coelacanths of the Comoros Islands, along with another population discovered in Indonesia, are now celebrities of the animal kingdom, and nobody has spent more time with them than Hans Fricke.
In 1986, the German explorer and then-freelance photographer convinced a magazine editor to send him and a submarine to the Comoros. Since then he’s led more than 400 dives, helping to produce much of what is now known about coelacanths. After the publication of his latest work, published in Marine Biology and entitled “The population biology of the living coelacanth studied over 21 years,” Wired.com talked to Fricke about his time with the mysterious, magnificent creatures.
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