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Monday, May 21, 2001

Casting Web on ‘living fossil’ fish
By Ed Stoddard

THE Paleozoic era met the Internet age when South African divers filmed a coelacanth — ancient bony fish — more than 100 metres (330 feet) down and beamed images to the Web.

"We spotted an adult about 1.3 metres (over four feet) long and filmed it for five minutes," expedition head Pieter Venter told Reuters by phone from Sodwana Bay on South Africa’s northeast coast.

"It was fantastic as we were getting a bit nervous after four days of searching, three of them below 100 metres," said Venter. "The visibility and conditions were great."

Coelacanths have been swimming the seas for around 400 million years and were thought to have been long extinct until a fishing boat off South Africa caught one in 1938.


That catch electrified the scientific world and is widely regarded as one of the major zoological discoveries of the 20th century.

Coelacanths were subsequently found near the Comoro Islands, off Africa’s east coast, and more recently off Indonesia.

But none were seen off South Africa until Venter stumbled across three during a deep dive off Sodwana in October — the first time a scuba diver has ever observed the fish in their natural habitat.

Venter went back with a team in November and got three of the fish on film, ranging in length from 1.2 to 1.8 metres (five feet to almost six feet) at a depth of 107 metres (350 feet).

"We can clearly see the markings on the three fish that were filmed previously and so we will see if this animal is a new individual or one that we have seen before," Venter said.

Each coelacanth has a unique pattern of white markings that enables scientists to identify individual fish.

The current expedition hopes to film more of the creatures so scientists can eventually determine if the Sodwana population is a viable and breeding one or simply a few drifters from the Comoro Islands.

Divers can spend only 12 minutes at such depths and may take as long as two hours to go back up to the surface because they need to take decompression stops at different depths.

In November one cameramen who filmed the fish died after surfacing without proper decompression — the second of three deaths that have been linked to the search for South Africa’s coelacanths.

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