Coelacanth Heaven

I’ve been meaning to write this post for the entire 12 months I’ve been in Grahamstown, so, best for last.

Though an hour inland from the ocean, Grahamstown has functioned as a hub for ichthyology research in South Africa since the 1920’s, due to the efforts of an amateur ichthyologist named J.L.B. Smith and a forward-thinking woman named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer.

It was J.L.B. Smith who described the first extant coelacanth (see-lə-kanth) species to the scientific community after a live fish was caught off the coast of East London in 1938 and delivered to Courtenay-Latimer, the curator of the East London Museum who often collected new fish specimens for Smith.


Sketch of a coelacanth sent to J.L.B. Smith from Courtenay-Latimer in 1938. Image from

The coelacanth’s discovery was so amazing because this fish was thought to have been extinct for millions of years. It was known only from the fossil record, and the last record was 65 million years old. It’s the equivalent of going for a walk in the woods and encountering a live Tyrannosaurus rex.


A newspaper headline announcing the coelacanth’s discovery.

The full story of the discovery of the first coelacanth specimens is fascinating and described in great detail in two books: “A Fish Caught in Time” by Samantha Weinberg and “The Living Fossil” by Keith Thomson.

After the coelacanth’s discovery, the J.L.B. Smith Institute was created in Grahamstown in 1977 to foster ichthyological research. In 2002, the institute was renamed the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, aka SAIAB. SAIAB is full of coelacanths! There is an entire mini-display in the front lobby that features the 2nd specimen ever caught and some history of the JLB Smith Institute. There are coelacanths on banners on the walls, coelacanth drawings and sketches and paintings… even my ID has coelacanths on it.


SAIAB’s lobby is open to the public and filled with coelacanth history.

The original coelacanth specimen is housed at the East London Museum, where there is an entire coelacanth wing! I finally took the opportunity to visit and was impressed with the quality of the exhibit, given the museum’s small size.


Posing with the original coelacanth specimen at the East London Museum!

One of the most fascinating things I learned during my fellowship was from a public lecture by Dr. Rob Gess, a paleontologist at Rhodes University and the Albany Museum, who actually discovered a new species of fossil coelacanth in Grahamstown that happens to be the oldest on the African continent! Just outside of town sits one of the richest shale deposits in the Southern Hemisphere from the Devonian period. During that time, the sea level was much higher and Grahamstown actually functioned as an estuary. Gess has discovered multiple individuals of baby coelacanths, enlightening the scientific community on the estuarine use of these amazing fishes.


Grahamstown’s fossil baby coelacanth. Image from Grocott’s Mail.

In 1993, a second species of living coelacanth was discovered in Indonesia by a man named Mark Erdmann, an ichthyologist on his honeymoon. I’m still holding out for the discovery of the 3rd living species, but in the meantime there are GTs to study! As my fellowship wraps up in Grahamstown, I’m hesitant to leave this small town with a big fish, but I have a feeling I’ll be back soon.


I created this amazing meme and couldn’t resist including it here.

Mahé Island, Seychelles

The month of February, 2016 was spent in the field in the Seychelles Archipelago. I was based on Mahé, the largest island, which has a population of 90,000. Mahé and two neighboring islands, Praslin and La Digue, host the majority of Seychelles’ population. These “inner islands” are the oldest islands in the WORLD and the ONLY granitic islands in the world. Needless to say, Seychelles is a spectacular place.


The Seychelles Archipelago is the oldest island chain in the world!

My main objectives were to collect tissue samples of various Carangid species, but mostly the giant trevally, aka GT (Caranx ignobilis). These tissue samples will be used for genetic and stable isotope analyses. I was also there to meet with the Seychelles Fishing Authority and set up collaborations with sport fishermen and NGOs who operate in Seychelles.


Leading a PRIMER workshop at the Seychelles Fishing Authority

This was by no means an individual effort, and I was accompanied by some fantastic fishing hands and friends! Sheena Talma, a MSc student at Rhodes/SAIAB and a Seychelloise citizen, also traveled back to Mahé with me on a mission to collect samples of bonefish (Albula glossodonta) for her population genetics study.


Sheena and I in the Johannesburg airport eager to go into the field!

Also with me for 14 days was my good friend and fellow Alaskan, Kevin Siwicke, who was on a world-wide tour in between oceanography cruises with NOAA. Some fantastic comrades from Yale (Bobby Gibbs, Allen Sanchez and Noah McColl) joined at various points as well to explore the island and help sample. And, last but not least, fellow Explorers Club member Gaelin Rosenwaks of GlobalOceanExploration and the amazing cameraman Chris Theibert came for 10 days to help catch GTs, document the fieldwork, and produce media footage to connect with the public and the sportfishing community.


Chris Theibert, me, Kevin Siwicke, and Gaelin Rosenwaks stop at a lookout point on Mahé after a long day of filming and fishing.

While we may have been on a tropical island with white sandy beaches, beautiful blue water, and long sunny days, it didn’t mean the sampling would be easy! Bonefish are incredibly skittish and are hard to catch on the inner islands because the habitat isn’t ideal for them there. And without a boat, we were often limited to fishing for GTs from shore, which meant a lot of scouting and exploring to find accessible channels, currents, and rocky areas where the smaller GTs like to hang out. Luckily, we were able to find some great spots on shore AND get out extensively on a boat, thanks to Stephan Holzhausen of Big Time Charters.


Allen with his first juvenile GT caught from shore!

Another method of sampling was frequenting the Victoria market to see what the local fishermen were bringing in. Carangids have consistently made up ~30% of the catch of small-scale commercial fisheries in the Seychelles since the 1950’s. Most of what they catch these days are bludger (Carangoides gymostethus), yellow spotted trevally (Carangoides fulvoguttatus) and bigeye (Caranx sexfasciatus), but if GTs are caught, they’re also sold.


Collecting samples in the Victoria Market


In the end, we collected ~50 carangid samples, including 20 GTs and some species not yet in SAIAB’s collection! Sheena and I established a great base of contacts, including the Seychelles Sports Fishing Club, whose members have already collected over 100 tissue samples for us from various locations that we couldn’t visit on this trip. The support from the Seychelles Fishing Authority, sport fishermen and non-profits has been amazing and we’re excited to keep collaborating with them over the course of the next few years.


My first giant trevally!


Exploring a new country is always exciting, but now it’s time to get back in the lab!

Ponta Do Ouro, Mozambique

In November and December 2015, I had the good fortune to be able to spend two weeks in southern Mozambique at the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve. I was sampling with Rhett Bennett and John Filmalter, post-docs at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, and Ryan and Clare Daly from the Save our Seas Foundation in the Seychelles.


Ponta do Ouro is situated on the border of Mozambique and South Africa


Ponta do Ouro, at sunset.

One objective of this trip was to tag individuals of the Giant Kingfish (Caranx ignobilis, aka Giant Trevally, or “GT”) as they came together to form a massive spawning aggregation off the coast. We successfully inserted acoustic tags into 14 individuals, and will be following their movement patterns in northern South Africa and southern Mozambique over the next few years.


A Giant Kingfish tagged and ready for release! Left to right: Clare Daly, Jessica Glass, John Filmalter, Ryan Daly.

The size of this spawning aggregation is incomparable to any other gathering of GTs recorded throughout the rest of the world! My co-researchers estimate there are approximately 4,000 of these fish; so many that they turn the water green at the surface!

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Thousands of Giant Kingfish form a spawning aggregation every summer.

Another accomplishment of the trip was collecting fin clip samples and muscle tissue for genetic and stable isotope analyses, respectively. I am busy in the lab analyzing these samples, which will tell us about the genetic diversity within individuals at the spawning aggregation, and where they sit in the trophic food web. This information, in combination with the tagging data, will paint a clearer picture of the ecology, evolution and behavior of this fascinating species!

Ponta do Ouro is a beautiful part of the world. It’s reassuring to learn that Mozambique, ravaged by years of civil war, is promoting the sustainability of its oceans by designating these biologically significant regions as reserves.


First Field Trip to Port St. Johns, Transkei

Last week, SAIAB Principal Scientist, Paul Cowley, and I ventured into the Transkei (“the Wild Coast”) for three days with two objectives: 1) turn over acoustic receivers stationed in three different estuaries that are monitoring the movement of various tagged fish, and 2) catch some kingfish for DNA samples.

Turns out, a lot can happen unexpectedly in the Transkei.

On day one we were delayed by 2 hours due to rioting by a community outside of East London that lacks electricity. There were trees and boulders blocking the two-lane highway, and all we could do was sit and wait it out- luckily from a distance. Driving into the Transkei isn’t for the faint-hearted. There are cows, goats, dogs, sheep, pigs, and people crossing the highway at all points in time and no shoulders on the road, in addition to a total disregard for no-crossing zones by other cars. We witnessed an oncoming 18-wheeler truck smash into the side of another and take out the mirror while passing illegally. Luckily we avoided the collision.

Port St. Johns is a small town nestled between two cliffs on the coast of the Indian Ocean and at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River (umzimvubu means hippo in isiXhosa!). Along the banks of the river, the locals sell intricately carved trucks made out of thick, hardened mud. A bag of 4 giant avocados sold for R10 (75 cents) and we made sure to stock up.

The Umzimvubu River

The Umzimvubu River

We successfully replaced the acoustic receivers in the Umzimvubu and were also able to take in a bit of the scenery while chatting with some local dive operators about a Great White Shark attack that occurred in May.

We stayed in little huts on the banks of the Umzimvubu River.

We stayed in little huts on the banks of the Umzimvubu River.

Day two was spent on the Ntafufu river ~45 minutes north of Port St. Johns. We changed over another receiver and spent the rest of the day sampling fish. We didn’t have the best luck fishing, but the river was absolutely stunning, and we didn’t see a single other person. Just as it was getting too dark to cast, Paul managed to catch a juvenile blacktip trevally (Caranx heberi) the sister species to the Giant trevally. The lodge owner is graciously continuing to sample Carangids for me.

Blacktip Trevally. Photo by Gordon Date.

Blacktip Trevally. Photo by Gordon Date.

Our return trip was mostly uneventful (per Transkei standards) with not too many cows or goats blocking the road and beautiful views of the sunrise, until we reached the town of Mthatha where our vehicle suddenly broke down in the middle of a busy intersection. Luckily after a bit of commotion, we managed to get a tow out of there and then spent 3 hours at the mechanic while the alternator and wiring were being repaired. Needless to say, neither of us feel the need to spend another 4 hours in Mthatha anytime soon.

Sunrise in the Transkei.

Sunrise in the Transkei.

Our broken vehicle in Mthatha.

Uh oh. We had some vehicle issues in Mthatha.

At the end of the day, the trip was a success and it was great to see this remote part of South Africa, get my feet wet, and cast a line!