A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanthby Samantha Weinberg
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.
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- HarperCollins UK
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- 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
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 fishmore like a big china ornamentbut 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 poundsinto 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 fishan 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-Latimerwhat'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 fishin 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.
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.