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January 2001 Vol. 27, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Strange Findings in the Deep

from the January, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

November was a month for the unusual.

Scuba divers captured historic video footage of three coelacanths — a 400-millionyear- old fish believed to be extinct until one was found in a fisherman’s net in 1939. They were filmed at a depth of 375 feet off South Africa’s Sodwana Bay National Park, whose reefs are frequented by sport divers.

The coelacanth has fleshy limb-like fins, the probable precursors of arms and legs. It is the end-of-the-line-fish that scientists believe led to the first four-legged, land-dwelling vertebrates.

Pieter Venter first spotted a coelacanth on a recreational dive in October. It was the first time a diver outside a submersible craft had seen the ancient species in its natural habitat. He took an eight-man team back to verify the discovery. Making a dive using four different gas mixes that gave them 15 minutes at 375 feet, they filmed three coelacanths after 12 minutes at that depth. The fish hung in the water, then lowered their heads and became vertical as they were filmed.

The discovery was marred by the death of one diver, who died of a cerebral embolism suffered during an uncontrolled ascent from that depth.

The Sodwana fish is the shallowest find so far. Others were at 180 meters. The only other known population is off Indonesia’s Manado Tua Island, which became known in 1997 when an American marine biologist came across one in a fish market.

In Belize, the discovery was more macabre. Several divers aboard the Nekton Pilot received a post-Halloween shock while diving Half Moon Caye. There, on the bottom, lay a human skeleton minus part of the legs. Caught on digital video by a diver from New Orleans, the tape was later played for a substantial segment of the 31 guests on board. A diver with funeral home experience guessed the body had been submerged only three months as bits of connective tissue still seemed visible. Though apparently reported to the Nekton’s Captain and a local airport shuttle driver, there is no indication of any follow-up. Seems to us, a few Belizean officials might be interested, as well. Unless, of course, another day was being celebrated early - April 1.

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