Tales of Fishy Smiths an en­thralling read

Go! & Express - - SCHOOLS - PETER MARTIN

The dis­cov­ery on De­cem­ber 22, 1938, of a liv­ing coela­canth, caught in a net off Cha­lamna, will for­ever be linked with the name of JLB Smith and his wife Mar­garet.

The coela­canth, a pre­his­toric fish, was be­lieved to be ex­tinct for mil­lions of years.

The Smiths hailed from the Eastern Cape and their scientific en­deav­ours re­main im­por­tant for our area as with­out doubt the re­sult of that catch put the city of East London on the map.

A book, en­ti­tled The Fishy Smiths, was launched on Satur­day Oc­to­ber 13 at the East London Mu­seum by au­thor, pro­fes­sor Mike Bru­ton, who knew the Smiths and suc­ceeded Mar­garet as di­rec­tor of the LJB Smith In­sti­tute of Ichthy­ol­ogy, known to­day as the South African In­sti­tute for Aquatic Bio­di­ver­sity at Rhodes Univer­sity.

In Jan­uary 1939, a let­ter ar­rived for the Smiths at their hol­i­day home in Knysna from East London Mu­seum di­rec­tor Mar­jorie Courte­nay-La­timer with a draw­ing of the strange fish, re­quest­ing Smith to pro­ceed to East London to iden­tify the catch. Smith had been a lec­turer in chem­istry at Rhodes Univer­sity and be­ing a keen an­gler, had gained some fame as an am­a­teur ichthy­ol­o­gist.

He recog­nised the fish as a “liv­ing fos­sil” and be­fore leav­ing for East London he al­ready had some idea of its iden­tity. Un­for­tu­nately Courte­nay-La­timer was un­able to pre­serve the in­ter­nal or­gans of the fish. The soft parts had all rot­ted away and had to be de­stroyed. How­ever, the fish was later mounted and placed in a glass case. The first coela­canth fos­sil had been dis­cov­ered in 1836 and when Smith re­vealed that the strange fish was in­deed a coela­canth, sci­en­tists and even the me­dia around the world were scep­ti­cal. “Smith is dan­ger­ously de­luded,” said the mis­guided di­rec­tor of the SA Mu­seum.

Dur­ing the 1940s and early 1950s the Smiths un­der­took a num­ber of ex­pe­di­tions to East Africa and Mo­cam­bique, search­ing for an­other coela­canth spec­i­men.

They iden­ti­fied thou­sands of species of fish, re­sult­ing in the pub­li­ca­tion of a num­ber of books, com­plete with pic­tures.

In 1952 a re­ward no­tice of­fer­ing £100 to any­one with a spec­i­men of the coela­canth was dis­trib­uted by the Smiths through­out East Africa, and on the way back from their East African trip, a cable was re­ceived by Smith from Eric Hunt, the skip­per of a trad­ing schooner, stat­ing that an­other coela­canth had been caught in the Co­moros Is­lands.

Smith had to pro­ceed there as quickly as pos­si­ble and then-South African Prime Min­is­ter DF Malan ar­ranged for him to fly to the Co­moros in a Dakota air­craft.

The sec­ond coela­canth was brought back to South Africa and Rhodes Univer­sity. The rest is his­tory.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.