Hans Fricke Swims With ‘Extinct’ Coelacanths

by Owen James Burke

In 1938 a young curator at a National History Museum in East South Africa received a bizarre-looking fish that was about 5-feet-long covered in bony scales with fins that resembled legs, which local fishermen had brought in from some 240 feet off the Comoros Islands.  The young curator by the name of Courtinay-Latimer quickly sketched the specimen, recognizing that she was not prepared with an aquarium large enough to keep it alive.  The sketch was sent to ichthyologist J.L.B. Smith.

Smith concluded that it looked like a coelacanth, only they had been (reportedly) extinct for 70 million years!

Although Courtinay-Latimer was unable to preserve the fish, it was only two weeks before the next specimen came in.  Apparently fisherman of the Comoros were coming across coelacanths fairly frequently.

Decades later in 1975, a young Hans Fricke set out to find more.  He joined an expedition in the area and then eventually found his way over to the Comoros, where he attempted some “very stupid, very daring scuba dives to down over 300 feet,” turning up nothing. Wired interviews Fricke, who is one of the world’s most experienced observers of these strange fish.

Returning in 1986, Fricke managed to smuggle with him a submarine, unable to pay customs.  He spent some time on this trip, but not enough.  Just days after he left, his two research partners who had decided to stay longer finally made contact with a coelacanth.  It turns out they are nocturnal creatures.

Fricke flew back shortly thereafter and found the elusive fish on the very first dive of this excursion.

“You immediately grasp that something is fishy with this fish. It is not a normal fish. Their movements are extremely slow; it has something like a mute character. I had the feeling I had an amphibian in front of me, because of the movements of the fins.”

Fricke identified tetrapod-like movements of the fish, especially in its fins, which he described as making cross-step motions–suggesting a possible early adaptation in the transition from sea to land.

Read on:

*wired*

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