The South African Coelacanth Discovery Story



The South African Coelacanth Discovery

Story based on text received from Pieter Venter and edited by Garth Cambray.

On the 28th October 2000 thirty year-old Pieter Venter, a patent attorney from Gauteng was making an eight-minute Trimix qualifying dive to 104 metres into Jesser Canyon under the watchful eye of his supervisor Peter Timm and watched by Etienne le Roux. Venter, ever curious about the fascinating underwater world around him, was peering into the small caves and collapsed overhangs that characterise these canyons at that depth when he saw a bright eye reflected in the lights mounted on his 'hard

hat'. Curious he moved closer and to his utter surprise saw that the reflected eye was from a large dark-coloured fish he immediately recognised as a coelacanth. He drew Timms attention to this and together they searched for, and found, two more coelacanths. Dismayed, Venter realised that without photographic evidence few would believe him.

At the end of the dive, Venter decided to make a return journey to the canyon once he had sufficient information about coelacanths, and also the correct equipment so as to document their presence. A month later and armed with more knowledge about coelacanths and accompanied by a small team of Trimix divers he again made his way to Sodwana and to Peter Timm's bush camp. On the 26th November Venter, accompanied by divers Peter Timm, Erna Smith , Pieter Smith (Erna's husband and long-time dive buddy) and Etienne le Roux, made their first dive into Jesser Canyon. On the surface were backup divers Gilbert Gunn, Christo Serfontein and Martin Bensh. Of their 95-minute total dive time only 10 were spent on the bottom. The divers located a few caves and overhangs and attached as mall buoy to mark the spot.

The next day, the 27th November 2000, a dive plan was calculated for 15 minutes at a depth of 115 metres. The divers were to be Pieter Venter and Gilbert Gunn, cameramen Christo Serfontein and Dennis Harding and support divers Pieter Smith, Martin Bensch and Etienne le Roux . The four dropped

down on a gently-sloping sandy bottom and swam over the lip onto a series of rocky overhangs. Traversing slowly along the ledge they encountered larger and larger collapsed overhangs and caves. Using hand-held torches they peered into every likely-looking cave. Time was fast running out and

the divers were beginning to become a little disappointed when suddenly Venter realised that before him, in a small cave, was a large coelacanth Gunn had missed it as he swam past! Flashing his torch at the

cameramen to signal the find he moved in closer and as the camera lights illuminated the cave they discovered, to their surprise, two more coelacanths a little further into the cave. The depth of this cave was 108 metres and water temperature about 18°C. The largest fish was estimated to have been about 1.8 metres long, the others about 1.5m and about a metre.

It was remarkable that throughout the less than three minute encounter the fishes appeared quite calm, showing neither fear nor antagonism. The largest fish, the one nearest the divers, remained almost motionless except for a slight twitch of its paired fins as if to announce that "that is far enough I've seen you!". Another remarkable event was that the middle fish of the trio slowly went into a semi-headstand eventually rolling belly-up and orienting itself upside-down against the roof of the small cave. The divers were ecstatic (Harding's gleeful whoops can be clearly heard in the video he was filming) and continued to video the fishes until their time was up and they were forced to begin their ascent.

(At this point the first of two disasters struck the discovery team resulting in the death of Dennis Harding from decompression sickness. The second was the subsequent death of Erna Smith in a later training dive at Badplaas sinkholes. See related articles on the Tragedies and their causes, as well as the technology which allows Trimix diving.)

Prior to the South African Coelacanth discovery many coelacanth researchers (though not all) felt that coelacanths may live in various localities along the East African coast and about the many scattered volcanic islands of the western Indian Ocean. So, it came as exciting news, but not entirely unexpected news, that this group of divers had discovered coelacanths at a depth of 104 metres in one of the many deep, steep-sided canyons off the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast of South Africa.

As a result of the discovery of these coelacanths, a CITES listed species, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism realized the importance of the find as an asset to tourism, education and science in South Africa, and to the St. Lucia Marine Protected Area in particular. Special legislation and regulations were drafted and promulgated for the protection and management of the South African coelacanths. In terms of the Management Plan one diver expedition would be allowed in 2001. In recognition of the discovery team's efforts, priority filming rights were granted to the discovery team and they were accorded priority as the first official expedition

The dive team's interest in the coelacanth continued so they applied for a permit to dive and film in Jesser Canyon and after some four months of negotiation the permit was granted. The group began a series of training dives and re-equipped themselves with identical equipment so that in any emergency they would instinctively and immediately know exactly what to do and where to find things.

Plans were made for a series of dives in May 2001 with the objectives of further documenting the South African coelacanth population, surveying the canyons in which the coelacanths were found, observing coelacanth behaviour in the presence of divers, raising funds for further scientific expeditions and promoting the protection of the coelacanth. As a secondary objective the team intended to establish safe deep diving practices and prepare a set of standards for future deep diving into coelacanth habitats.

The application for a permit to dive recreationally to view and film the coelacanths with the above objectives was applied for and negotiated in terms of the management plan drafted by Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) and KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (KZN Wildlife) who approved its aims and objectives and so on the 2nd May 2001 the dive group arrived at the Triton Dive Charters camp in Sodwana ready to begin their series of work-up dives.

Members of this deep dive Trimix group were: Pieter Venter- expedition leader/deep diver, Peter Timm - sea logistics/deep diver, Nuno Gomes - dive leader/deep diver, Pieter Smith - logistics officer/deep support diver, Craig Kahn - safety officer/deep diver, Gilbert Gunn - deep diver/support diver, Etienne le Roux - deep support diver, Chris Serfontein - deep support diver. Support and communication divers included Ruan Putter, John Bucke, Garrick Pietrs, Lenny Vermeulen, and Dean Erasmus. Accompanying them was a medical team supported by Diver Alert Network (DAN): Dr Hermie Brits, Chris Jacka, Mark Labuschagne and Dr Frans Cronje.

On 3 May 2001, after arrival at Sodwana, the team was informed that their permit had been refused due to the issue of whether or not the diving of the expedition would fall under the dive regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act which governs profit based activities. As there would be potential value in the rights to any coelacanth video footage or photographs made by the dive group KZN Wildlife held that they could not therefore issue a permit for the dives as previously agreed and that the issue should be resolved with the Department of Labour. The team, in the meanwhile, had also approached the Department of Labour to clarify the issue and obtain a written agreement from them that they acknowledged the dives as purely recreational as nobody was employed or contracted to dive. It transpired that the authorities were advised by the Diving Council which consists of commercial dive operators who have no legal training and with possible vested financial interest in the research of the coelacanth discovery. The Department of Labour then informed the dive group that it could not issue a letter confirming their recreational status as the Act did not cover recreational dive activities. It was a catch-22 situation in which nobody seemed prepared to take the responsibility of giving the 'green light'.

The team were forced to proceed with their work up training dives in a different area of Jesser Canyon.

The first two days of diving deeper than 100m into Jesser Canyon were executed in perfect conditions. The visibility was 30m plus, no wind, mild currents and a slight swell. Several caves were investigated but no coelacanths were located. The deep diving continued on 14th May in a 6 to 7 knot current and Nuno and Gilbert had drifted considerably during a slow descent and spent much of their bottom time trying to reach the edge of the shelf. The second dive pair of Pieter Venter and Peter Timm did find the edge of the shelf and succeeded in filming the first coelacanth of the expedition for about five minutes in a smallish cavern. The water temperature at that depth had dropped by about 2 degrees to less than 18°C, in upwelling conditions. This coelacanth was about 1.4m long, was alert, aware of the divers but seemed quite unafraid of the diver's presence. The divers were ecstatic and within minutes video clips were beamed around the world through the Worldstream Internet website.

The following day, just before the boats were to be launched, the team was informed that all diving activities were to cease immediately..

The excuses raised by KZN Wildlife were:

· that the team dived on a known coelacanth location

· that video clips were made available on the internet to subscribers

· that divers could not be allowed to dive before the submersible scientific survey planned in June 2002 between the JLB Smith Institute and Hans Fricke with the reason that divers may disturb the coelacanths.

In the team's opinion none of the excuses were legitimate or justifiable, the team became suspicious as to the real reason they were stopped and it appeared patently clear that the pressures put upon KZN Wildlife were from persons with financial or scientific interest in our South African coelacanths. The dive group felt that if this was indeed the case it was a sad reflection on the state of scientific research in South Africa and the manner in which government departments are frequently incapable of any proactive decisions. They feel that all natural resources, the coelacanth in particular, are for everyone and not exclusive to a minority; that they were the ones who made the exciting coelacanth discovery at great personal sacrifice and that any further information must be welcomed as so little is known about this extraordinary fish.

Unfortunately the international media jumped into the deep end announcing that the expedition had been permanently stopped since the divers were "disturbing the coelacanth". A statement not supported in any way by the facts and a statement that destroyed any possibility for the discovery team to raise funds for future survey work via the Internet.

After three crucial lost days the team received permission to continue their diving but still without the official permit for which they applied. Since this situation was better than no diving at all the team, with only two days still available to them, decided to continue with their original dive schedule.

On the first dive of their final day, 19th May, Nuno and Gilbert filmed a coelacanth of about 1.3m under a slight overhang for about 10 minutes. The coelacanth was in an open cavern and was hanging motionless in a headstand position when first seen. The fish was filmed from all sides for later identification.

On the second dive of 19th May, Peter Timm and Pieter Venter filmed another coelacanth close to the one filmed by Gilbert and Nuno about an hour before. This fish was enormous, at least 2m in length with a first dorsal fin height of over 30cm. It seemed curious of the divers but also totally fearless of them. The coelacanth was skillfully filmed by Peter Timm for about 10 minutes.

Despite resistance, patent bureaucracy and lack of support from the authorities, the team managed to achieve what they set out to do - to further assess the numbers and distribution of coelacanths in Jesser Canyon and to begin a documentation of the micro-habitat. With at least 5 coelacanths (possibly 8 - the divers feel the first three they saw in October 2000 were not the same three seen in November) discovered in Jesser Canyon it is quite clear that the colony is probably a large one, and compared to other canyons in the vicinity, Jesser Canyon is a mere dent in the narrow continental shelf, there is every reason to hold out hope that we have a very large coelacanth community off our northern KwaZulu-Natal coast.