A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth

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by Samantha Weinberg

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A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor – 400 million years old – a four-limbed dinofish!In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman’s trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the


A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor – 400 million years old – a four-limbed dinofish!In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman’s trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth – a species known to have lived 400 million years ago, and believed by many scientists to be the evolutionary missing link – the first creature to crawl out of the sea. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had thus made the century’s greatest zoological discovery. But Smith needed a live or frozen specimen to verify the discovery, so began his search for another coelacanth, to which he devoted his life.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Ellis
Samantha Weinberg has written a lovely book about this discovery and What It All Means, and everybody ought to read it...This is terrific stuff, and even if you haven't given much thought recently to big, supposedly extinct fishes first found in East Africa and then in Indonesia, you ought to read this book. It will knock your socks off.
London Times
Mail on Sunday
The discovery of the coelacanth, as told in Samantha Weinberg's thrilling new book, reads like some classic Spielberg creation - Indiana Jones let loose in a real-life Jurassic Park.
Giles Foden
This book has all the ingredients of a bestseller: a curious, four-limbed fish to which we probalby owe our own evolutionary existence, a host of eccentric icthyologists, Teutonic submariners, British adventurers, and a series of political and environmental imbroglios.
Guardian (London)
Richard Fortey
Weinberg's lively account of politics and serendipity in marine research helps you understand how even a fish could engender fanaticism.
Yorkshire Post
Bella Bathurst
Samantha Weinberg's account of the many lives of the coelacanth has all the ingredients of a great scientific story...rare mytical beasts, mad professors, last-minute mercy dashes, international piracy, high-level political intrigue, and richly satisfactory cast of supplementary cameos...Weinberg skillfully fills the narrative with educational asides and...sharp character sketches.
Simon Singh
[Samantha Weinberg] writes with enthusiasm and passion.
Sunday Telegraph
Gail Vines
...a fascinating tale...Samantha Weinberg uses her journalistic skills to weave an entertaining and well researched account of coelacanth mania.
Independent (UK)
Daily Telegraph
[A] lively book...part natural history, part adventure story and...part evolutionary musing...garnished with great splashes of narrative color.
A fascinating study of an arcane subject and the scientists caught up in the adventure...full of incident and skulduggery. Weinberg holds us enthralled until the last page.
Literary Review
a fascinating and accessible study of an arcane subject.
Michael Dirda
Samantha Weinberg's A Fish Caught in Time is like Dalva Sobel's Longitude or Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman—great fun to read yet seriously informative. All three of these journalist-authors know how to craft a good story. —Washington Post
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Scientists had believed that coelacanths, five-foot-long fish with surprisingly limblike fins, existed on earth for approximately 330 million years, from 400 million years ago until they went extinct about 70 million years ago. To the world's surprise, however, a live one was discovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Here, British writer Weinberg presents a breezy, engaging account (previously published in the U.K.) of this "living fossil," from the time it was first described in fossil form by the great paleontologist Louis Agassiz in 1839, to its rediscovery 100 years later, to the present. Because coelacanths had been presumed extinct for so long, because modern individuals appear so little changed from their fossilized relatives and because morphologically they appear to be an evolutionary link between fish and reptiles, perhaps on the path leading to humans, they have a great deal to tell the scientific community. Weinberg, while not focusing on the science, provides enough information to give nontechnical readers a flavor for the biological issues surrounding this primitive group of fish. Otherwise, she features the people most involved with rediscovering and studying coelacanths, as well as the national and scientific rivalries arising from the fish's fame. Filled with b&w photos, this book should appeal not only to cryptozoologists and naturalists, but to anyone interested in the living evolutionary record. Agent, Gillon Aitken. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In 1938, a fish believed to be extinct for 70 million years was caught off the South African coast, triggering the "greatest scientific find of the century." The search for the coelacanth, the first fish thought to have crawled from the ocean to land, is a fascinating story, and Weinberg (Last of the Pirates: The Search for Bob Denard) tells it well: the "discovery" of the coelacanth by Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, and the identification and naming by J.L.B. Smith, the noted ichthyologist; the territorial fights over who "owned" the fish; and the search for sites other than the Comoros where the fish might live, including the discovery of an Indonesian coelacanth in 1998. Weinberg has used many resources, including Smith's own Old Forelegs (1956), up through Keith Thomson's Living Fossil (LJ 5/15/91) and Peter Forey's History of the Coelacanth Fishes (Chapman & Hall, 1998), none of which capture the spirit of adventure as well as has Weinberg. Her excellent book is recommended for academic and public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/99.]--Jean E. Crampon, Science & Engineering Lib., Univ. of Southern California, Los Angeles Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Though Weinberg's narrative focuses on the coelacanth, the tale she tells is bigger than that of a single fish. In the end, the book is about a catalytic event in humankind's evolving quest to understand how it became what it is.
The New York Times Book Review
Joan Tapper
Prominent in the "truth is stranger than fiction" category is the coelacanth - the five-foot-long prehistoric fish that was thought to have been extinct until one was caught off South Africa in 1938. Samantha Weinberg brings the saga of rediscovery to life in A Fish Caught in Time her vividly portrayed characters include the astute young woman curator who first recognized the fish, the brilliant scientist who spent a dozen years seeking a second specimen before finding it in the Comoros, and the passionate inventors who developed a submersible to track the fish. Weinberg caps off the story with the discovery of coelacanths off Indonesia in 1998. Don't let this one get away.
Islands Magazine

Product Details

HarperCollins UK
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

December in East London is hot and humid. An ochre haze smothers the small South African city; even the ocean breezedoes 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 inthrough 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 tothe docks to wish them the compliments of 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 abeautiful 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 it free. 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 it as 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."

Meet the Author

Samantha Weinberg, 31, is a writer and journalist of South African extraction who was born and brought up in London. She was features editor of Harpers and Queen and has written for most daily broadsheets.She is author of Last of The Pirates (Cape 1994) .

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Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I first picked up this book, I was doubtful that such a long book just about a fish could be engaging. With 193 pages of what I assumed could only be dull information on a boring fish, I thought I would be asleep at my desk after reading the first few chapters. To my surprise, Samantha Weinberg did an amazing job making this book both informational and exciting. It turned out that the coelacanth was not an average fish, but rather a beautiful living fossil that had gone undetected by scientists for many years. Weinberg goes into great detail describing the fish’s tiny brain, magnificent scales, and unique appendage-like fins, which may relate to humans’ evolutionary ancestry and the link between animals in the sea and on land. More importantly, because of its rarity and previously unknown location, Weinberg follows the story of J.L.B. Smith’s mission to find the first intact coelacanth specimen. This particular plotline, which makes up a good portion of the book, is filled both with the adventure of exploring the planet’s oceans and the suspense created wondering whether or not Smith would find his coveted coelacanth. Not only that, but there is some tension and rivalry between Smith and French scientists who both intend to lay claim to the coelacanth discovered in the Comoros. On top of all of this, no matter the perspective, is the excitement of reading through the story of what was possibly the most significant zoological discovery of the 20th century. Do not underestimate Weinberg’s ability to turn a scientific discovery into a fully-fledged, entertaining story. This book exceeded my expectations by far, and was still very difficult to put down. I highly suggest taking the time to experience the fascination of such a monumental discovery recorded in this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a very easy read and was easy to follow, perfect for anyone. It tells an interesting story about the prehistoric fish and the search for specimens. The book leaves the reader questioning not only the past, but also the future for this prehistoric holdover.