National Geographic : 1988 Jun
HE EERIE GLOW of the submersible's interior lights (below) bathes the pilot, Jiirgen Schauer, before a night dive alongside our support ship Metoka. Our crew made 22 dives in the Comoros before we saw our first coelacanth. We might never have succeeded without the help of island fisher men (left), who told us where they had caught coelacanths on their long lines in the past. Since coelacanths are too oily to be good eating, the hundred or more specimens known to have been brought up since 1938 were caught accidentally in the search for valued food fish. No coel acanth has survived capture for more than 20 hours. We noted that most coel acanth catches had occurred off the west coast of Grande Comore (maps, facing page). Concentrating on those areas, we measured water tempera tures at various depths, search ing for levels of 15° to 17 0 C (59° to 63°F)-the ideal range, according to earlier studies of coelacanth blood. We measured the salinity and oxygen content of the water at all points. In addition we examined the structure of the rugged, lava encrusted ocean floor, because the shelter it provides could in fluence the distribution of fish that might be coelacanth prey. Our painstaking research at last paid off. At 9 p.m. on January 17, 1987, we found our first coelacanth at a depth of 198 meters, 180 meters off Grande Comore's west coast. The moment capped 17 years of my own research and half a century of study by others, in cluding an expedition in 1972 partially supported by the National Geographic Society. Forty-eight years after that first specimen was caught in South Africa, we had tracked the fish to its native depths and made the first live observations there. HANS FRICKE is a documentary filmmaker and a marine biologist with the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in West Germany.