The discovery on December 22, 1938, of a living coelacanth, caught in a net off Chalamna, will forever be linked with the name of JLB Smith and his wife Margaret.
The coelacanth, a prehistoric fish, was believed to be extinct for millions of years.
The Smiths hailed from the Eastern Cape and their scientific endeavours remain important for our area as without doubt the result of that catch put the city of East London on the map.
A book, entitled The Fishy Smiths, was launched on Saturday October 13 at the East London Museum by author, professor Mike Bruton, who personally knew the Smiths and succeeded Margaret as director of the LJB Smith Institute of Ichthyology, known today as the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity at Rhodes University.
In January 1939, a letter arrived for the Smiths at their holiday home in Knysna from East London Museum director Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with a drawing of the strange fish, requesting Smith to proceed to East London to identify the catch. Smith had been a lecturer in chemistry at Rhodes University and being a keen angler, had gained some fame as an amateur ichthyologist.
He recognised the fish as a “living fossil” and before leaving for East London he already had some idea of its identity. Unfortunately Courtenay-Latimer was unable to preserve the internal organs of the fish. The soft parts had all rotted away and had to be destroyed. However, the fish was later mounted and placed in a glass case. The first coelacanth fossil had been discovered in 1836 and when Smith revealed that the strange fish was indeed a coelacanth, scientists and even the media around the world were sceptical. “Smith is dangerously deluded,” said the misguided director of the SA Museum.
During the 1940s and early 1950s the Smiths undertook a number of expeditions to East Africa and Mozambique, searching for another coelacanth specimen.
They identified thousands of species of fish, resulting in the publication of a number of books, complete with pictures.
In 1952 a reward notice offering £100 (about R55,585 today) to anyone with a specimen of the coelacanth was distributed by the Smiths throughout East Africa, and on the way back from their East African trip, a cable was received by Smith from Eric Hunt, the skipper of a trading schooner, stating that another coelacanth had been caught in the Comoros Islands.
Smith had to proceed there as quickly as possible and then-South African Prime Minister DF Malan arranged for him to fly to the Comoros in a Dakota aircraft.
The second coelacanth was brought back to South Africa and Rhodes University. The rest is history.