Synopses & Reviews
December in East London is hot and humid. An ochre haze smothers the small South African city; even the ocean breeze does little to dispel the seasonal lethargy. The year is 1938; Gone With the Wind is about to open in America, and Hitler is menacing central Europe. But on the southern tip of Africa, three days before Christmas, most people's minds were on the approaching holidays: offices were beginning to close, families were drifting home to put the finishing touches to their festive arrangements.
At the East London Museum, the thoughts of the young curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, were far from the upcoming festivities. A small woman with unruly dark hair and lively black eyes, she was rounded by bones, racing to complete the assembly of a rare fossil dinosaur she and a friend had excavated in Tarkastad.
At quarter to ten in the morning, a shrill ringing echoed in through the two rooms of the tiny museum, shattering the young woman's concentration: the telephone had been installed only two days previously. Mr. Jackson, manager of the Irvin & Johnson trawler fleet, informed her that Captain Hendrik Goosen had just arrived at the docks. "There is a ton and a half of sharks for you on the trawler Nerine," he said. "Are you interested?" Marjorie was tempted to say no. She wanted desperately to complete the fossil display before the museum closed for the holidays, and she already had a load of fish specimens from Captain Goosen's last voyage, waiting to be mounted. "But I thought of how good everyone at Irvin & Johnson had been to me, and it being so near to Christmas, I thought the least I could do would be to go down to the docks to wish them the complimentsof the season." She grabbed a grain sack and called her native assistant, Enoch, and together they caught a taxi to the wharf.
"I went in to see Mr. Jackson," she recalls, sixty years later, "and as I was going out, he said, 'Well, I don't think it's quite a ton and a half of sharks, but a Happy Christmas to you!' They used to torment the life out of me." She hitched up her cotton dress and climbed onto the 115-foot Nerine. The crew had all gone ashore except for an old Scotsman, who told her that the specimens were on the fo'c'sle deck. She looked at the pile offish: sharks, seaweed, starfish, sponges, rat-tail fishes, all kinds of things. She told the Scotsman she probably would not be taking anything; nevertheless she sorted them out carefully. It was then that she noticed a blue fin sticking up from beneath the pile.
"I picked away the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen," she recounts. "It was five feet long, a pale, mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange little puppy dog tail. It was such a beautiful fish--more like a big china ornament--but I didn't know what it was.
"Yes, miss, it's a strange one," the old Scotsman said. "I have been trawling for over thirty years, but I have never seen its like. It snapped at the captain's fingers as he looked at it in the trawl net. We thought you would be interested." He told her that it had been trawled at a depth of forty fathoms, off the mouth of the Chalumna River, and that when Captain Goosen first saw it, he thought it so beautiful that he wanted to set itfree. Marjorie said she would definitely take this one back to the museum.
She and Enoch eased the large fish-it weighed 127 pounds--into the sack and carried it to the taxi. The driver was horrified. "I refuse to take any stinking fish in my new taxi!" he exclaimed. Marjorie replied: "It is not stinking. It is perfectly fresh, and if that is the case, I will get another taxi. I brought you here to collect fish for the museum." He relented and they carefully lowered the fish into the boot of the car.
"I was confused," she relates. "I had certainly never seen anything like it before, yet there was a voice nagging In my head. I kept on thinking back to school, where I had written lines about a ganoid fish--an ancient group distinguished by their heavy armor of scales. I had a teacher, Sister Camilla, whose father was a paleontologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, and he used to teach his daughter about marine paleontology, and so she was always teaching us about fish. And on this day I wasn't paying attention, and she turned to me and said: 'You-little-Latimer--what's a fossil fish?' And you-little-Latimer didn't know, because she hadn't been listening. You-little-Latimer will write twenty-five lines: A ganoid fish is a fossil fish. A fish's a fossil fish. And you-little-Latimer wrote it out twenty five times. I've still got the book. And so, back at the museum, as I stared at the strange scales on this fish, those lines kept going around in my head: A ganoid fish is a fossil fish--in other words, a fish that has long since become extinct and is known only from fossil records. The scales, the four limbs, all pointed towards it being a ganoid fish .I was so near to classifying itas a ganoid fish: but I thought it couldn't be a fossil fish because it was alive. I didn't think it could be. But I just knew it was something valuable."
The coelacanth (see-lo-canth) is no ordinary fish. Five feet long, with luminescent eyes and limb like fins, this bizarre creature, presumed to be extinct, was discovered in 1938 by an amateur icthyologist who recognized it from fossils dating back 400 million years. The discovery was immediately dubbed the "greatest scientific find of the century," but the excitement that ensued was even more incredible. This is the entrancing story of that most rare and precious fish -- our own great-uncle forty million times removed.
Thought to be long extinct, a five-foot long fish with luminescent eyes and limblike fins was discovered in 1938 by an ichthyologist who recognized it from fossils dating back 400 million years. This account reveals the international controversy sparked by the coelacanth's discovery, and how it all came together in 1998 in a gripping climax. Photos & illustrations.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -214).
About the Author
Samantha Weinberg is a British writer and traveler. She has reported from the four corners of the world for American, African, and European newspapers and magazines. She divides her time between her suitcase and a thatched cottage in Wiltshire, England.