Diving expedition uses new equipment to help study coelacanth

2013-09-16 00:00

AN international research team is collating the findings of a diving expedition to study the once-presumed extinct coelacanth off the Sodwana Bay section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

There are 27 known coelacanth fish in the area, with estimates that there may be three more.

The park along the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal is South Africa’s sole marine and terrestrial world heritage site. There are 148 research projects being undertaken there. The coelacanth was first trawled off East London 75 years ago. Thirteen years ago, coelacanths were discovered in the Sodwana section of the park at a depth of over 100 metres below sea level.

Among the researchers were Peter Timm, who discovered the fish 13 years ago, and award-winning underwater photographer and director of Andromede Oceanology in France, Laurent Ballesta.

The South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity and the South African National Biodiversity Institute are leading the research, building on previous research done through the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme.

Park chief executive officer Andrew Zaloumis said yesterday the expedition was part of ongoing research into the fish.

“The big break for us in this expedition was the use of remotely operated vehicles,” he said.

He said the park typically received many applications to study the fish in its natural habitat, but these were carefully vetted.

“The expedition was an opportunity to build the knowledge base on coelacanths and marine ecosystems … this knowledge will be used to inform the iSimangaliso Authority’s conservation and protection strategies for this flagship species.”

He said the research was multi-disciplinary and involved bathymetric mapping (measurement of depth of bodies of water), population and genetic research, behavioural studies and an exploration of biodiversity in the deep water habitats of iSimangaliso.

The research expedition, involving a deep-water diving team and other specialised equipment, such as the remotely operated underwater vehicle, was also linked to the production of a science documentary.

The coral reefs at Sodwana Bay in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park contain over 1 200 species of fish and are rated as one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world.

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