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Under The Microscope

A FISH OUT OF TIME: the search for the coelacanth, by Samantha Weinberg; Fourth Estate (Allen and Unwin), 1999; 239pp; $39.95

Reviewed by Vicki Hyde

Would you believe me if I told you that a story about the hunt for an ancient fish will captivate you? Try reading A Fish Caught in Time and see if you, like me, get caught up in the search for the coelacanth. It starts with the netting of a living example of this ancient fish, pulled out of South African waters in 1938 -- the only other known examples of the fish dated back 70 to 400 million years, sandwiched in rocks as a relic of the dinosaur age. Small wonder the fish was tagged as a "living fossil" -- but it was some time before the true nature of this relic was recognised, and that forms the basis of Samantha Weinberg's story.

It's a story with hope, longing, suspense, mystery, triumph and a good dose of international piracy and nationalism thrown in besides. Like Dava Sobel's Longitude, A Fish out of Time is a small, elegant book with a lot of drama surrounding a rather unlikely subject.

Samantha Weinberg has done the coelacanth proud, and may well find herself inspiring a new generation of enthusiasts to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers of the late 1930s. In a surprisingly gripping read, she makes us feel for the cast of characters who have wondered at this millions-year-old glimpse into the past.

There's Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the "lady curator"of South Africa's East London Museum, who knew that this strange beautiful fish was something special that she had to preserve.

"It was five foot long," she recalled, "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 a beautiful fish -- more like a big china ornament -- but I didn't know what it was."

She toted the fish from morgue to taxidermist to chemist, desperate in the Christmas bustle to preserve her prize for more trained eyes. Her sketch went to the highly regarded J.L.B. Smith, egocentric and eccentric, who seven weeks of sleepless night until he finally got to see this fish. It was to be a long, long time before Smith set eyes on another specimen of what he named, in honour of Marjorie, Latermeria chalumnae.

Smith, was a chemistry lecturer by profession, a fish expert by preference, and he was prepared to become an international pirate for the sake of science. That action involved successfully begging his prime minister to provide a military plane to get Smith to the Comoros where a coelacanth was waiting for him -- the first to be hauled up in the 14 years since Marjorie had marvelled at her fish.

Poor Smith. He had to go endure the agony and torture of an official welcome by the local Governor, curious to meet a man on a mission for a fish. Finally he got to open the refrigerated box and see that this agony was not for naught:

"It was a coelacanth all right," noted Smith. He went on to describe his reaction:

"I knelt on the deck so as to get a closer view, and as I caressed that fish I founds tears splashing on my hands and realised that I was weeping, and was quite without shame. Fourteen of the best years of my life had gone in this search and it was true; it was really true; it was really true. It had come at last."

Who says there's no romance in science?!

Smith's wife Margaret, a respected researcher in her own right, carried on her husband's quest, founding the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology, learning to scubadive at 60 and mentoring a whole new generation of enthusiasts. Margaret lived long enough to see the first graceful images of a live coelacanth in all its wonder and beauty, filmed in 1988.

Those images came courtesy of Hans Fricke, who projected them on the walls of Margaret's hospital room 50 years after her husband saw the first evidence that these were more than fossil curiosities; Fricke himself had been inspired into the search by reading Smith's "Old Fourlegs" as a teenager.

You start to care about this oddest-looking of fish, with its "legs", its puppy-dog tail and its large luminous eyes. With its possible link between water and land, who knows but that we may be looking at a distant ancestor or cousin? For this reason (and many more), you can understand the intensity of feeling that the coelacanth arouses. It is to be hoped that ideas of establishing protected areas for this apparently very rare species -- and discouraging its enthusiastic uptake by the Chinese medicinal community or would-be aquariasts -- will ensure that it has a chance of surviving into the future.

There is still a great deal we don't know about this planet, particularly about the vast regions under the waves. If a coelacanth can survive for millennia and come to light this century, who knows what else awaits us?

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.