Living Fossil "The Coelacanth" The Video by Bunaken Cha Cha     Back to HOME 

The Coelacanth commonly known as the Living Fossil Fish or in Indonesia as " Raja Laut " King of the Sea has been around since the dinosaur period, some say at least 7 milion years, not a fish that you can see diving or snorkeling but one that every now and again is caught by fishermen around Manado and Bunaken National Marine Park. (The end of May2007)

Local Newspaper about "A Fisherman cought Coelacanth"
Sulawesi Coelacanth
Sulawesi Coelacanth

Sulawesi Coelacanth Autopsy reveals pregnant fish

The Coelacanth AutopsyThe Autopsy of the Coelacanth that was caught last month around Bunaken National Marine Park, surprisingly showed that in fact the fish was pregnant, hopefully the teams from Indonesia, France and Japan will be able to use the data gained, to better understand this amazing creature.

I have been informed by Manado University that I cannot publish any information regarding this species of fish it seems that somebody from Japan has complained about us showing this video footage, and they have cited that they own all the rights to it !!!

Of course we appologies profusely if we have infringed any copyrites, though we belive we have not, it is such a pitty that those (Japanese) involved with the Coelacanth cannot work together with those that are and live on location like us and that instead they wish to show force of strength so as to keep exclusivity to themselves.
Surely not a positive way forward, though time will tell.

Photo by Bunaken Cha Cha Nature Resort



"The Sulawesi Coelacanth" The Autopsy Video by Bunaken Cha Cha



The First Sulawesi Coelacanth found at Fish Market in Manado 1998

Mark V. Erdmann
Coral reef ecologist

Until 1938, coelacanths were only known to a select few paleontologists as a strange order of lobe-finned fishes which had appeared in the fossil record almost 400 million years ago and then seemed to go extinct about 65 million years ago, along with their dinosaur neighbors. This changed dramatically n late 1938 when newspapers around the world heralded the spectacular discovery of a "living fossil" coelacanth, trawled off the coast of South Africa. A subsequent fourteen-year search for a second specimen of this peculiar fish resulted in the discovery of the "true" home of the living coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae, in the Comoran archipelago in the western Indian Ocean.

Since that time, almost 200 specimens have been captured from the Comoros, with several additional specimens collected in Madagascar and Mozambique. Genetic analyses of the few individuals collected outside of the Comoros convinced many scientists that these animals were simply "strays" from the main population, which existed exclusively in the Comoros. This extremely limited distribution (very unusual for large fishes), combined with heavy collecting pressures for museums and rare animal collectors, resulted in the coelacanth being listed as a CITES Appendix 1 species. This rather unenviable honor affords the species protected status, whereby international trade in coelacanths is strictly forbidden.

Against this historical background, the coelacanth surprised us all yet again, when earlier last year I was honored to announce the capture and preservation of a living coelacanth from North Sulawesi, Indonesia, almost 10,000 km from the Comoros. The 1.24 m long fish, captured by Om Lameh Sonatham in a deep-set (~150 m) shark gill net off of Manado Tua island in the Bunaken Marine Park, was featured in television, radio and newspaper articles around the world in late September. Certainly this was an exciting scientific discovery, but why all the publicity?

Public interest in the coelacanth probably results from a combination of its unique appearance, its evolutionary importance, and the fascination which invariably surrounds deep sea creatures. Coelacanths have a unique combination of morphological characteristics which suggest that they are close to the origin of the evolution from bony fishes to early four-legged land creatures such as amphibians. Perhaps the most striking feature is their seven lobed fins, unique among living fishes. The paired pectoral and pelvic fins move in an alternating fashion which resembles a horse at a slow trot. The tail is also unique in having a small secondary "epicaudal" lobe. Other interesting morphological features include an intracranial joint (which appears to allow them a wider gape when capturing prey) and a hollow, oil-filled notochord instead of a backbone. The name coelacanth comes from the Greek words for "hollow spine" and refers to that peculiar aspect of the fish’s fins.

Coelacanths are large fishes, reaching almost 2 meters in maximum length and weighing up to 100 kg, though an average size is closer to 1.25 m and 30 kg. They may live to an age of at least 22 years, and the females produce large, orange-sized eggs which hatch within the oviduct before the female gives birth to live young. Submersible research by the German team of Hans Fricke and colleagues has shown that in the Comoros, these fish live in relatively cold, deep water averaging 100-250 m in depth and 18&Mac176; C in temperature, and seem to prefer steep volcanic slopes with lava caves. During the day they rest in these caves in docile groups of up to 14, while at night they come out and drift solitarily in the currents while searching near the bottom for prey. Though scientists have never observed coelacanths feeding in their natural habitat, analyses of stomach contents of captured specimens have shown that their diet includes cuttlefish, squid, and various small to medium-sized benthic fishes – including lantern fishes, cardinal fishes and deepwater snappers.

Beyond this rather limited information, we know very little about the natural history of the coelacanth. Its mating, courtship, and feeding behavior is unknown, and we can only speculate on such issues as how they disperse or what natural predators they may have. Young specimens have only very rarely been captured or observed, so the question of possible kinship-based social behavior remains a mystery.

The fish that we announced in September 1998 was not the first Indonesian specimen we had seen. In September of 1997, my wife Arnaz and I were on an extended honeymoon trip to North Sulawesi to show our friends John and Janel the amazing natural beauty of the area, while also house-hunting in anticipation of my upcoming research in the area. On the last day of John and Janel’s visit, we took them for their first trip to a traditional Asian fish market, and as we stepped out of the taxi, Arnaz’s attention was immediately drawn to a large, strange-looking fish being wheeled across the parking lot. I immediately recognized the fish as the coelacanth, which I had read about with fascination as a schoolchild. We excitedly photographed the fish and briefly interviewed the fishermen. We were hesitant to buy the fish, however, as we found it difficult to believe that this could really be a major discovery, and we concluded that coelacanths must have been found in Indonesia previously. This decision was one which I was to regret for almost a year, as we found out about a week later on a trip home to the U.S. that this was indeed a BIG find, and that we really should have preserved the fish.

Returning to Sulawesi in November of 1997, we were determined to find another specimen. Aided with funding from the US National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, we set about questioning the fish sellers in the markets, armed with photographs of the first fish. These interviews were generally frustrating and indicated that the fish sellers were not familiar with the coelacanth, so we turned to direct fishermen interviews. Over the course of the next four months I interviewed fishermen in coastal villages around North Sulawesi, and the results of over 200 such interviews, conducted in Indonesian, suggested that few, if any, fishermen had captured these fish. I was beginning to believe the suggestion by the few scientists who knew of the first fish that the Indonesian coelacanth was "a honeymoon hoax", despite the fact that we had seen the fish with our own eyes and had photographs to prove it!

Fortunately, by the end of March 1998, we had identified several fishermen who seemed to recognize the fish in the pictures, although these fishermen fell into two distinct groups. There were several old handliners who claimed that this fish was "ikan sede", caught at night in a manner most similar to that reported for the Comoran fishermen who occasionally catch coelacanths. On the other hand, there were two fishermen who informed us that this fish was actually "raja laut" (translated as "king of the sea"), also caught at night, but in deep shark nets. The dilemma was soon solved when the ikan sede fishermen delivered to us a specimen, which turned out to be the oilfish Ruvettus pretiosus. Though not a coelacanth, this was nonetheless interesting because the oilfish is the target species which Comoran fishermen are fishing for when they accidentally catch coelacanths.

Dilemma solved, we focused our attention on the two "raja laut" fishermen. After months of monitoring their catches, we were rewarded handsomely on July 30, 1998, when a second Sulawesi coelacanth was delivered to us, barely alive, by one of these fishermen. We were able to slightly revive the dying fish by towing it behind our boat, after which we photographed it in shallow water. The experience of swimming with this strange but uniquely beautiful fish can only be described as magical, and made it worth the ten-month wait for a second fish. Sadly, the injured fish eventually succumbed and we froze it, later donating the specimen to the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

The discovery has raised numerous questions about the true distribution and conservation status of coelacanths around the world. It is our hope to conduct submersible research throughout the vast Indonesian archipelago in order to document the habitat of coelacanths here and hopefully describe further populations from these islands. Additional populations would be welcome news for coelacanth conservation, as recent estimates place the remaining number of coelacanths in the Comoros in the low hundreds, and one study suggests a population decrease on the island of Grande Comore of over 30% from 1991 to 1994 alone!

In the meantime, the people and government of Indonesia have enthusiastically accepted the weighty responsibility of protecting this precious national and world heritage. Local pride in the coelacanth has grown quickly with the aid of numerous Indonesian television and newspaper pieces on the fish, and there are further plans for educational posters and brochures to be distributed to schools and villages. The importance of conserving this species has been stressed from the beginning. The Indonesian Institute of Sciences has hosted several national meetings to discuss policy issues of further coelacanth research and conservation with concerned agencies such as the fisheries, customs, and nature conservation departments and the Ministry of the Environment. All of the involved agencies have shown surprising interest in the fish, and the typical bureaucratic lethargy that often surrounds conservation issues has yet to surface. The coelacanth continues to work its magic…

Meanwhile, in the coelacanth’s newly discovered home in North Sulawesi, hopes are high that this living fossil will help augment nature tourism to the area. Joining other local "oddball" attractions such as the spectral tarsier, pygmy seahorse, and hairy frogfish, the coelacanth seems to fit right in with North Sulawesi’s bewildering array of wildlife, both marine and terrestrial. While recreational divers will never be able to swim with coelacanths in their native habitat at 100 m or more depth, these fish have an almost indescribable charm that surrounds their presence, and this alone will be a draw for visitors. Just the knowledge that coelacanths may be swimming a mere 100 m below them will be enough to excite many divers. If plans for a "coelacanth information center" in the capital city of Manado materialize, even non-diving tourists will be able to share in the excitement surrounding our distant ancestor.

Besides promoting North Sulawesi tourism, there is also hope that the coelacanth find will encourage stronger conservation efforts and better management within the world-famous Bunaken National Marine Park. As a CITES Appendix 1 animal, the coelacanth has the capacity to function as a "keystone species" to draw further conservation interest and funding for the park. Already, several international donor agencies have expressed an interest in projects to develop "alternative livelihoods" for the fishermen who live within the park boundaries and practice demersal fisheries. Such efforts would benefit not only coelacanths but, the entire coral reef ecosystem within the park.

Simply the fact that the Sulawesi coelacanths could escape detection from the scientific community in an area well-studied by fish scientists for at least 100 years is provocative, and it is a humbling and exciting reminder that humans have by no means conquered the oceans. The discovery provides fodder for our imagination about other, as-yet-undiscovered "sea monsters", and it underscores the importance of protecting our oceans, lest we lose forever creatures that we have not yet even discovered.