Finding Eric: inside the search for the prehistoric coelacanth
A team of experts has been exploring underwater canyons in KZN – and the search came good in spectacular fashion
If beginner’s luck has ever applied to anyone, it’s Jabulani Ngubane. Last week, on his first ever marine research expedition, he spotted the most unlikely of animals: a coelacanth.
And this after just 90 minutes on board.
Ngubane, a KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife manager operating at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site, was part of the team on board the Angra Pequena research vessel on Tuesday.
The plan of the research was simple: explore and understand the deep canyons on the country’s east coast. The dream was less simple: to see the prehistoric coelacanth in the environment it calls home.
Having this actually come true was a long shot at best. There are, after all, just 33 known coelacanths across the entire SA coastline.
Remarkably, the unlikely happened. There, at a depth of 125m, was the unmistakable – and elusive – creature.
“It was crazy,” Ngubane told Times Select on Friday, the excitement of what happened still coursing through his veins. “You can imagine the adrenaline.”
The fish’s image came up on the vessel’s screen, beamed in real-time thanks to the remote-operated vehicle (ROV) on board. The mood was instantly electric, said WILDOCEANS marketing manager Lauren van Niekerk.
WILDOCEANS was among the organisations leading the expedition.
So just how rare is a coelacanth sighting?
“It is literally like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Van Niekerk. “There are only 33 known in SA, and they were thought extinct until they were discovered off Chalumna [near East London] off a fishing boat in December 1938.”
In fact, a sighting is so rare that of the 15 people on board the vessel on Tuesday – made up of eight crew and seven guests – only three of them had ever seen one before. Those three were all scientists.
“Coelacanths have only been filmed by ROV four times [three of which were off our research vessel Angra Pequena] since 2000,” said Van Niekerk.
The ROV was provided by the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) and piloted by Ryan Palmer of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity.
One of the scientists on board, Dr Kerry Sink of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, maintains an identification catalogue for the coelacanths seen to date.
Thanks to her expertise, they even know this particular coelacanth’s name.“She … identified the fish as Eric, one of the 33 fish that had been catalogued. He was last seen in 2013,” said Dr Jean Harris of WILDOCEANS. “This will give us insight into their life span and them being resident in the caves.”The expedition started on May 10, and the ROV was with them until Saturday. The expedition will continue without the ROV until the end of the month.On that fateful Tuesday, it appears Ngubane was the lucky charm. He had been picked up in Sodwana Bay that morning. It was his only day on board.
Ngubane is no stranger to the conservation. He’s worked at the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Park for 18 years, where he encountered all of the Big Five – and a host of other land animals – on countless occasions.
In March 2018 he decided to change tack, taking up the post of Ezemvelo Parks Manager within iSimanagliso.
“I’ve spent 19 years in the bush, and now I’m mixing it with marine biology. It’s a privilege and honour to have worked in both,” he said.
Nothing, Ngubane said, could compare to seeing Eric.
“It was an extraordinary experience. I’d only dreamed about it. I never thought it would be a reality,” he said.
He said it was vital to understand the environment that such an incredible animal lived in.
Van Niekerk agreed. “We know so little about our marine environment, especially the deeper canyon habitat. As far as we know, we are the only research vessel in the country that can go on expeditions for up to 30 days at a time, with ROV technology that can reach the depths these fish are found at and explore the vast canyons that exist in the area.
“This specific expedition had a goal to learn more about, and research, inside and outside the canyons – highlighting the value and importance of canyon systems in the ocean. In the long term, having this sort of data can mean our research can help inform decisions by the government concerning our oceans.
“These trips and capturing this sort of footage gives us the ability to pull back the blue blanket for those who would ordinarily not see the world that exists below the surface. If people can’t see what is in our oceans, how can we expect them to connect with it, appreciate it, respect it or want to protect it,” she said.