Fwd = 'Fossil fish' in dramatic sighting
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Original Date: Sat, 2 Dec 2000 16:17:47 +0100 (CET)
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BBC News Online
Friday, 1 December, 2000, 16:38 GMT
'Fossil fish' in dramatic sighting
The coelacanth, the ancient fish that has existed for at least 360
million years, has been filmed swimming in shallow waters off the
northeast coast of South Africa.
I looked at it carefully and after about six seconds I suddenly
realised it was a coelacanth
Not just one animal but six of the extraordinary creatures were
spotted by divers exploring a reef at Sodwana Bay.
It is the first time these "living fossils" have been observed by
anyone outside of a submersible vessel.
The coelacanth was thought to have died out 70 million years ago,
until a fish caught off South Africa was identified by a museum
curator in 1938.
Since then, a number of the prehistoric animals have been found living
around the Comoro islands near Madagascar and off Indonesia's Manado
The diver, Pieter Venter, said he first saw the fish at a depth of 104
metres (320 feet).
Diving team South African Ministry of Environment
The team of divers that filmed the fish lost one of its members
getting the pictures
He told reporters: "I looked at it carefully and after about six
seconds I suddenly realised it was a coelacanth. This means there must
be a large colony that was hiding from the world all this time."
He later returned with a team of divers to try to capture the
creatures on film. But the mission was marred by tragedy when one of
the team died after surfacing without decompression.
Nevertheless, footage of the animals was obtained and shown to
journalists on Friday. It revealed three fish ranging in length from
one to two metres (three to six feet). They were "standing" on their
heads and feeding off the ledge of an underwater canyon.
The film has been scrutinised and verified by a coelacanth expert.
Experts are surprised that the Sodawana fish were found in shallow
waters accessible to divers.
"This discovery suggests that the coelacanth may be far more
widespread than was originally believed, perhaps anywhere where you
get these deep canyons and old reefs in tropical waters," said marine
biologist Johann Augustyn.
South African authorities say they intend to keep the exact location
of the new discovery a secret for now to protect the fish.
"We want no human activity that will cause a disturbance for what is
really a very vulnerable species," said Valli Moosa, South Africa's
minister for environmental affairs and tourism.
The area of the discovery is already a protected marine reserve where
fishing on the seabed is prohibited.
The coelacanth has been dubbed "old four-legs" because of its four
It is the last of an ancient line of fish that many scientists believe
gave rise to the first four-legged land-dwelling vertebrates.
Coelacanths have been observed in deep water off the Comoro Islands,
north of Madagascar, but only by divers in submersibles.
The only other known population was discovered on the other side of
the Indian Ocean, off Indonesia's remote Manado Tua Island.
The Indonesian fish, which may be a distinct sub-species, only came to
light in 1997 when an American scientist saw one in a market.
This is the first sighting of a coelacanth in South African waters
since the 1938 catch.
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