National Geographic : 1988 Jun
EGENDARY NATURALIST Marjorie Courtenay Latimer spotted the first coelacanth in a trawler's catch at the South African port of East London in December 1938. The fish, later mounted, is displayed behind her in the East London Museum (left). Realizing that she had seen no ordinary fish, the young museum curator sent a sketch to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a noted chemist and ichthyologist at Rhodes University in Grahams town, South Africa. Smith identified it as a coelacanth, but of an entirely new genus and species from any recorded as fossils. He named it Latimeria chalumnae for its discoverer and the mouth of the Chalumna River, where it was captured. By the time Smith reached East London, the coelacanth's soft parts had been discarded. He launched a campaign to find a second coelacanth, dis tributing thousands of handbills in English, Portuguese, and French along the eastern Afri can coast and neighboring islands showing a picture of the fish and offering a reward. Finally in 1952 Smith heard from the captain of a trading schooner, Eric Hunt (below left, with one of the handbills). Hunt had obtained a coelacanth from a fisherman in the Comoro Islands and was keeping it, salted and injected with preser vative, for Smith. Would the professor come as quickly as possible? It was the chance of a life time, but Smith had a problem. He was more than 2,500 kilo meters (1,550 miles) from the Comoros, and there were no commercial flights. In despera tion he turned to South Africa's prime minister, Daniel F. Ma lan. Retrieving the coelacanth, Smith explained, was a matter of national interest. Could the government spare an army air craft for a few days? Within 32 hours he was on his way. The aerial odyssey of Smith and the coelacanth was front page news around the world. On the return flight from the Comoros, Smith refused to be separated from his prize. During stops for rest and refueling he slept beside the crate (below center). On the triumphal return to Cape Town, Smith unpacked the treasure (below) before his wife, Margaret, and an appre ciative prime minister. Last June I showed some of our film footage to Margaret Smith, then a widow and a can cer patient in a South African hospital. She told me she had always wanted to see the fish in action. "Now the circle of my life has closed," she said happi ly. Three months later she died.