OLD FOURLEGS: THE STORY OF THE COELACANTH – JLB Smith (1956)

One of my most constant and peculiar obsessions had always been a conviction that I was destined to discover some quite outrageous creature – JLB Smith.

And he did, too. The discovery of the coelacanth in 1938 is well known in thumbnail-version – supposedly long-extinct fish turns up in fishing net – but the full story of the one that got away for 65 million years is quite a fisherman’s tale.

It involves a sharp-eyed museum curator named Miss Latimer and JLB Smith, South Africa’s foremost ichthyologist. Much of the drama comes from Smith’s 14-year quest to find a second specimen, which finally turned up off the Comoros Islands in 1952.

Ironically after 65 million years time was short. Battles against red tape, suspicious officials, South African politicians, Christmas holiday ennui and the tyranny of distance make this book quite a cliffhanger, with the careworn Smith forever racing to reach specimens before they putrify beyond usefulness.

At the time of publication, Smith thought he had found two species, but later it became apparent they were the same. Of course they were nothing new to Comoro fishermen, who knew them as the very oily and far from tasty gombessa. A second species finally showed up in 1998 off Indonesia.

JLB Smith and long-lost friend

Googling for more info, I was shocked to find the curmudgeonly but likeable JLB Smith killed himself with cyanide barely a decade later, beset by terminal illness. And the intrepid Captain Hunt died in a shipwreck almost as soon as the book came out.

Meanwhile, we’re still pulling those weird blue fish out of the deeps and wondering what other surprises the sea has in store.

PS: FISH & CHIPS
A sadly true news story from 2012, underlining the disturbingly far reach of ocean pollution, reported a coelacanth found with plastic garbage in its stomach. A packet of chips, apparently. This is a poor reflection on the human race any way you look at it.

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