The hunt for the Coelacanth

South Africa’s “dinosaur fish” can weigh up to 80kg. They have a deep blue color which is thought to help camouflage them from predators in deep underwater canyons and their eyes are very sensitive to light.
Pictures: Ryan Palmer

A team of marine scientists and film-makers hope to pull off a remarkable coup over the next few days as they hunt for more “dinosaurs” in the deep underwater canyons off Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal.

The unique creature they hope to find and film is the coelacanth‚ the prehistoric fish species thought to have been extinct for 65 million years until a single small specimen was found on the deck of a fishing vessel near East London in 1938.

The discovery led to the subsequent capture and examination of a number of coelacanths off the coast of East Africa and Indonesia‚ but no living specimens were found in South Africa until 18 years ago‚ when six were found by deep-water divers in the Jesser and Wright canyons off the coast off Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal.

Since that initial discovery in 2000‚ the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) has confirmed the presence of at least 32 in the area‚ each of them identifiable by the unique colour markings on their bodies.

Over the weekend‚ the 72-foot research vessel Angra Pequena left Durban at the start of a two-week research and filming expedition off Sodwana and scientists hope that they will be able to find number 33 or 34 in canyons that have yet to be fully explored.

“Nobody has ever captured a juvenile coelacanth on camera and the team hopes to make history by doing so‚” said a spokesman for WILDOceans‚ a local environmental organisation that works closely with the national and provincial governments to improve knowledge of marine ecosystems in South Africa.

Dr Angus Paterson‚ managing director of the SA Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity‚ said: “We are very proud to have been involved in the research around cataloguing the 32 known coelacanths and are excited about the potential of finding others off Sodwana during this cruise.”

With funding support from the Department of Science and Technology‚ the research and filming crew will have at their disposal a submersible remote operating vehicle (ROV) and a baited remote underwater vehicle (BRUV) to explore the deep canyons.

The BRUV has two high-resolution cameras that help to measure the size and abundance of fish species in an area. It also holds a canister filled with sardines that attracts the fish so they can be viewed‚ measured and counted.

WILDOceans head Dr Jean Harris said: “We are looking forward to understanding more about the canyon ecosystem that the coelacanths inhabit. We suspect that the deep canyons that incise our continental shelf along the east coast are important productive features in the ocean landscape that deserve special attention.”

The filming off Sodwana will form part of the first episode of a documentary series entitled “Our Oceans: Dinosaurs in the Deep” by the Off the Fence wildlife film production company.

The series will examine a wide range of threats to the world’s oceans‚ from overfishing to mining‚ pollution and climate change.



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