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Friday, 1 December, 2000, 16:38 GMT
'Fossil fish' in dramatic sighting
Coelacanth South African Ministry of Environment
The coelacanth is sometimes called "old four-legs"
The coelacanth, the ancient fish that has existed for at least 360 million years, has been filmed swimming in shallow waters off the northeast coast of South Africa.

I looked at it carefully and after about six seconds I suddenly realised it was a coelacanth

Pieter Venter, diver
Six of the extraordinary creatures were spotted by divers exploring a reef at Sodwana Bay.

It is the first time these "living fossils" have been observed by anyone outside of a submersible vessel.

The coelacanth was thought to have died out 70 million years ago, until a fish caught off South Africa in 1938 was identified by a museum curator.

Since then, a number of the prehistoric animals have been found living around the Comoro islands near Madagascar and off Indonesia's Manado Tua Island.

Coelacanth footage

The diver Pieter Venter said he first saw the fish at Sodwana Bay at a depth of 104 metres (320 feet).

Diving team South African Ministry of Environment
The team of divers that filmed the fish lost one of its members getting the pictures
He told reporters: "I looked at it carefully and after about six seconds I suddenly realised it was a coelacanth. This means there must be a large colony that was hiding from the world all this time."

He later returned with a team of divers to try to capture the creatures on film. But the mission was marred by tragedy when one of the team died after surfacing without decompression.

Nevertheless, footage of the animals was obtained and shown to journalists on Friday. It revealed three fish ranging in length from one to two metres (three to six feet). They were "standing" on their heads and feeding off the ledge of an underwater canyon.

The film has been scrutinised and verified by a coelacanth expert.

Secret location

Experts are surprised that the Sodawana fish were found in shallow waters accessible to divers.

"This discovery suggests that the coelacanth may be far more widespread than was originally believed, perhaps anywhere where you get these deep canyons and old reefs in tropical waters," said marine biologist Johann Augustyn.

South African authorities say they intend to keep the exact location of the new discovery a secret for now to protect the fish.

"We want no human activity that will cause a disturbance for what is really a very vulnerable species," said Valli Moosa, South Africa's minister for environmental affairs and tourism.

The area of the discovery is already a protected marine reserve where fishing on the seabed is prohibited.

'Old four-legs'

The coelacanth has been dubbed "old four-legs" because of its four lobed fins.

It is the last of an ancient line of fish that many scientists believe gave rise to the first four-legged land-dwelling vertebrates.

Coelacanth have been observed in deep water off the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar, but only by divers in submersibles.

The only other known population was discovered on the other side of the Indian Ocean, off Indonesia's remote Manado Tua Island.

The Indonesian fish, which may be a distinct sub-species, only came to light in 1997 when an American scientist saw one in a market.

This is the first sighting of a coelacanth in South African waters since the 1938 catch.

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