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Until 1938, it was generally believed that the Coelacanth, a Sacopterygian which evolved 400,000,000 years ago, had become extinct about 60,000,000 years ago. The fish which most nearly resembled the Coelacanth, the Macropoma (known from fossils in England) and the Megalocoelacanthus (Alabama and Georgia, USA) became extinct 75,000,000 years ago.

In December 1938, the impossible happened. Captain Hendrick Goosen whilst fishing off the Eastern Cape of South Africa, found a bizarre fish in his net which he did not recognise. The fish was dispatched to Professor J.L.B.Smith who identified it as a Coelacanth.

Since that time, specimens have been found off the Comores, at Tulear in Madagascar and at Pebane, Mozambique. In 1998, a very similar Coelacanth - Latimeria mandoensis - was identified off the island of Manado Tua, Sulawesi, Indonesia. All of these specimens were caught at depths of more than 200 metres.

In June 1998, three friends Pieter Venter, Peter Timm and Etienne le Roux were carrying out a technical dive in the St Lucia Marine Reserve off Zululand, South Africa. At a depth of 104 metres, the three friends saw something completely unexpected, three live Coelacanths swimming right in front of their masks- and no-one had a camera!!

On Monday 27 November 1998,Pieter Venter returned to the same site with Gilbert Gunn, Dennis Harding and specialist photographer Christo Serfontein. They performed a 134 minute dive, 15 minutes at 115 metres, during which time Christo photographed three Coelacanth but then disaster struck. Christo became unconcious and Dennis Harding clutching his incapacitated friend, did an uncontrolled ascent to try to save Christo's life. Transferred immediately on surfacing to the recompression centre at Richards Bay, Christo made a complete recovery. In saving his friend, however, Dennis suffered a cerebral embolism and died on reaching the surface.

Finding these prehistoric fish at depths accessible to divers allowed for the very first time, the possibility of studying these 'time travellers' face to face. Pieter Venter is presently negociating with the relevent government departments, the possibility of a research programme using the services of suitably qualified technical divers.

Latimeria chalumnae

Coelacanths, perhaps the most primitive ancestor of terrestial quadrupeds, have several unique characteristics. They have a unique ability to rotate their pectoral and pelvic fins. These appendages have certain characteristics of terrestrial quadrupeds- and bipeds- which would have helped them in an evolutionary move to life on dry land.

On the one hand, they are definitely bony fish yet they have many characteristics of cartiladgenous fish such as sharks and rays.

A gland under their nasal cartiledge, full of sensory nerves, allows them to sense electromagnetic fields just like a sharks ampullae of Lorenzini.

They have a pituitary gland just like a shark.

They have elevated levels of urea and other waste products whilst using a rectal gland to excrete salts permitting osmoregulation just as in sharks.

An organ filled with a very low density fluid reduces their overall density exactly as does the liver of a shark.

They exhibit a prolonged gestation period with ovoviparian parturition and the development of a pseudo placenta exactly like the Carcharodon sharks.

Truly a living fossil !!