5 December 2000

South Africa: Millions Could See "Dinosaur Fish" Live On Internet If...

Cape Town — The 400 million-year-old coelacanth fish, discovered off the KwaZulu-Natal coast last week, could be viewed live by millions of people around the world if a South African Internet company gets its way.

Africam.com, a Johannesburg-based company which has an audience of 40 million visitors a month to its virtual wildlife website, intends to apply for permission to install an underwater web camera in the deep waters around Sodwana Bay where the elusive "fossil fish" have been spotted.

The fish termed the dinosaur of the deep - because of its prehistoric features - was thought to be extinct until the discovery of a dead fish in the net of a fishing trawler off East London, South Africa, in 1939. That find caused international headlines.

Last week two scuba divers captured historic video footage of six coelacanths - about 1.5 metres long - at a depth of 115 metres near the popular resort.

The dramatic discovery was marred when one of the divers, 34-year-old Dennis Harding, died while filming the fish. A second diver also got into serious difficulties and had to be rescued.

South African coelacanth expert, Dr Phil Heemstra, has verified that the fish are coelacanths.

The coelacanths, which have survived for 30 million generations, are the last example of the crossopterygians, whose fleshy limb-like fins were the probable precursors of arms and legs. It is the end of the line that scientists believe gave rise to the first tetrapods, or four-legged, land-dwelling vertebrates.

Until last week, no other coelacanths have ever been found in South African waters. There are 125 species of coelacanth in the fossil record - but only one species is known to remain and it is in serious danger of becoming extinct.

Africam content manager Andy Parker told The Mercury newspaper that his company was exploring the feasibility of setting up a coelacanth camera site to raise public awareness and stimulate scientific research.

"Obviously, we are very excited about the massive entertainment value of filming the coelacanth, but it would also need to be a bona-fide scientific exercise.

"We would not even consider filming if this were to cause unacceptable impacts or interference to the coelacanths," he was quoted as saying.

He said the dark cave habitat and enormous depths where the coelacanths are located would most likely require artificial lighting, but the company would only go ahead if technical and environmental challenges could be overcome.

The project would enable scientists around the world to monitor the behaviour of the unique fish simultaneously.

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