Nov/Dec 1999 Book Reviews

A Fish Caught in Time

Samantha Weinberg
Fourth Estate (October 1999) 239pp
ISBN: 1 85702 906 2

reviewed by Ann Skea

"I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen....It was five foot long, a pale, mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy-dog tail".

It was December 22, 1938 and this was Marjorie Courtney-Latimer's first sight of a coelacanth. She didn't know what the fish was, but she knew that it was special. The words "ganoid fish" leapt to mind, but she knew that these fish had been extinct for milliions of years. She was puzzled.

Marjorie, who was curator of the East London Museum in South Africa, was a self-taught but expert naturalist, Her specialty, however, was birds not fish. So she telephoned her friend, Icthyologist Dr J.L.B Smith, at Rhodes University. Dr Smith was away, so Marjorie left messages and then immediately wrote to him, including a description and drawings in her letter and asking his opinion. It was not until January 3rd. that Smith recieved her letter and, although he was excited by its contents, it was February 16th before he arrived in East London. By this time the fish, of necessity, had been gutted but was preserved as carefully as possible in the summer heat. Sadly, the soft tissues which had been removed had been thrown away.

Dr Smith identified the fish as a coelacanth, a fish which was thought to have been extinct for 70 million years. He named it '_Latimeria chalumnae_ J.L.B Smith' in recognition of Marjorie's essential part in its discovery, but for Smith this was just the start of a lifelong obsession. One fish was astonishing but it was not enough. He needed to find out where these fish lived and how. It was to be fourteen years before he found another coelacanth and this was only the start of further puzzles.

For one thing, the coelacanth appeared to be living in a relatively young volcanic environment which was only 130 thousand years old. Yet the last fossil records of the fish were 70 milliion years old. Where had the fish been in all these intervening years?

For another thing, even when more fish were found it seemed impossible to keep tham alive so that they could be studied.

Then there were political and scientific rivalries to contend with. Smith, a South African, had bagged his second fish from under the noses of the French on the Comoro Islands, which were French Colonial territory. The French banned him from further visits to the islands. And, as scientific and public knowledge of the fish increased, they suddenly bacame valuable. No-one knew how many coelacanth existed but inspite of eventual CITES listing, fishing bans and even curses, a lucrative black-market trade sprang up, especially after the Chinese discovered 'immortality' in oil from the fishe's notocord.

Samantha Weinberg talls a fascinating story. And it is not only the story of the coelacanth (which may yet turn out to be closely related to us on the evolutionary tree) but also of the many odd, eccentric, obsessed and dedicated characters who have been hooked by their own curiosity about this fish. Among them: Marjorie Courtney-Latimer; J.L.B Smith and his wife, Margaret; marine adventurere, Eric Hunt- "Erol Flynn look-alike (but shorter)"; Hans Fricke and Jürgen Schauer and their yellow submarine submersibles (Fricke was first to photograph the live fish and to discover the caves in which the coelacanth live); and Mark Erdman, who discovered a second coelacanth population in the Celebes Sea and also brought the coelacanth and its survival problems to the internet .

I myself never expected to fall in love with a fish, but by the time I read about Mark Erdman and his wife swimming with a coelacanth in the Celebes Sea, I too was hooked.

"It looked like it was cloaked in golden armour....It reminded me of a Spanish dancer, waving its fins like a flouncing skirt.... I touched it and it was very soft: I could put my arm around it and squeeze and it was more like holding a baby with soft, young flesh, than a big, hard fish."

Like Mark, I did not want this fish to die.

In 1988, at the age of ninety-one, Marjorie Courtney-Latimer was guest-of-honour at a ceremony held by the South African Mint to launch a commemorative, gold coelacanth coin. But the story is by no means over. DNA testing has so far failed to prove that the coelacanth is the evolutionary missing link the scientists are looking for. And other puzzles still remain.

At the time when only one coelacanth was known to have been found, and that one with all its scales accounted for, a coelacanth scale was sent to the Smithsonian Museum by an unknown (and unfindable) Florida souvenir-seller who claimed to have bought a barrel-full of them. Then there are the precisely detailed, silver, ex voto coelacanth models which have been identified by silver experts as beind of Meso-American origin. Clearly there are still things to be learned about "Old Fourlegs".

At the end of this well-written, enjoyable and absorbing book, Samantha Weinberg notes that the human beings "are mere parvenus in the ledgers of coelacanth history". Let us hope that we can control our greed and curiosity, and love these fish well enough to make the book's title true - that the coelacanth really will be caught in time to prevent its 'second' extinction.


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