‘A very special sighting’

2019-11-25 17:03
The coelacanth discovered on the South Coast and filmed by the group of divers led by avid KZN diver Andrew ‘Moo’ Fraser. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

The coelacanth discovered on the South Coast and filmed by the group of divers led by avid KZN diver Andrew ‘Moo’ Fraser. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

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An avid diver has made a very rare sighting of a “fossil fish” while diving off Pumula on the South Coast.

This is only the 34th sighting off the coast of South Africa of a coelacanth, a deep-water fish long thought extinct until one was snagged in a fishing net near East London in 1938 and identified by the legendary Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer.

Alan “Moo” Fraser (32), a diver of 18 years who lives in Pumula, described the sighting at the Umzumbe River canyon near Pumula last Friday morning as “surreal”.

Fraser and a group of fellow divers went in search of the giant sea creature, and finally spotted it at a depth of about 72 metres, making it the second-shallowest discovery of a coelacanth — the shallowest being at a depth of 54 metres. The discovery has been hailed by the local biodiversity fraternity, which will now be able to conduct further research about coelacanths and better track their whereabouts.

An extremely rare fish, coelacanths were thought to have become extinct about 66 million years ago, but were rediscovered in 1938. They usually spend their time near or inside caves below the sea. They have been spotted more recently near Sodwana Bay.

Alan “Moo” Fraser.

Fraser, who spoke to The Witness on Sunday just as he was about to head in for another dive at Pumula, said he was diving with friends from Cape Town on Friday who were eager to see a coelacanth. “Those guys tried to dive in Sodwana to find coelacanths but were never able to get permits. So I thought we may find some near Pumula. I just thought about it logically and thought there must be one around a big river canyon.”

The group’s escapade was captured on camera, where the coelacanth can be seen resting between two rocks.

“It was such a surreal moment. It was very odd. I thought I had inhaled high pressure nitrogen from my breathing tank and it was getting to my brain,” joked Fraser, who said seeing a real-life coelacanth was something that had for a long time been on his “bucket list” to see.

Professor Kerry Sink, the manager of the marine programme at the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) said this discovery would be the 34th Latimeria chalumnae coelacanth seen in South Africa, adding that each creature was identified by a unique pattern of spots on it. She said the discovery at the spot near Pumula was not entirely surprising. “It is known that they are between East London and Sodwana, so we know that their habitat is in between those places.”

Sink, who has been studying coelacanths for nearly 20 years, has done over 160 dives looking for them but has never seen one outside Sodwana Bay.

“This is a very significant discovery and it’s very exciting and interesting. There have been reports of people sighting them but we’ve never had proof like this before. This discovery will enable us to do more research.”

She explained that coelacanths generally moved in groups of between one and seven. Sink said Sanbi has planned more expeditions for coelacanths in the next three years, adding that she was currently working at protea canyon.

She said coelacanths can dive as deep as 390 metres, and moved up and down depending on the temperature, saying that the one found by Fraser was likely so shallow because it was cold.

“Coelacanths are rare so they are naturally vulnerable,” Sink added.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  fossils

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