If you visited the Two Oceans Aquarium over the last few months, you may have noticed an unusual specimen … We hid an artist’s impression of a West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), also known as the African coelacanth, in the dry display next to the Touch Pool exhibit, and invited kids of all ages to dig through the sand to discover the “fossilised” treasure underneath.

“As soon as you interact with something, you start learning about it,” says Two Oceans Aquarium assistant curator Claire Taylor. “This dry display really lent itself to kids being able to dig and pretend to be archeologists and find ‘fossils’ at the Aquarium.”

Coelacanths are mysterious, elusive marine creatures that can live in depths up to 700 metres. And they get really big: 2 metres or more and up to 90 kilograms. Scientists estimate they can live up to 60 years or more.

A Sodwana coelacanth photographed in 2011 © ACEP SAIAB

There are two known species of coelacanth: the African coelacanth (primarily found in deep water near the Comoro Islands) as well as in shallower waters near Sondwana Bay in South Africa), and the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis). According to National Geographic, “The primitive-looking coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But its discovery in 1938 by a South African museum curator [Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer]  on a local fishing trawler fascinated the world and ignited a debate about how this bizarre lobe-finned fish fits into the evolution of land animals.”

Then, in 2004, Christo van Jaarsveld, a dive trainer in scuba-Mecca Sodwana Bay, discovered a coelacanth at an unusually shallow depth of 54 metres. African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) programme manager at the time, Dr Tony Ribbink, told the Mail & Guardian that, “in scientific studies of coelacanths done since they were first rediscovered in 1938, they’ve never been observed in water shallower than 100 metres.” Dr Ribbink was manager of ACEP from 2000 to 2006, he is now retired and running the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST). 

No living coelacanths, which are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, have ever been displayed in an aquarium. “The husbandry techniques to keep coelacanths in an aquarium have not been developed. They would have to be brought up from deep, deep water so the temperature and pressure changes would be too great. The risk to the animal would be far too great,” says Claire.

A missing link?

The most striking feature of this "living fossil" is its paired lobe fins that extend away from its body like legs and move in an alternating pattern, according to National Geographic. Other unique characteristics include a hinged joint in the skull which allows the fish to widen its mouth for large prey; an oil-filled tube, called a notochord, which serves as a backbone; thick scales common only to extinct fish; and an electrosensory rostral organ in its snout likely used to detect prey.

Coelacanths at the Aquarium

When the Two Oceans Aquarium opened back in 1995 it had a fascinating display on coelacanths, which included a life-size model of a coelacanth as well as a display showing the lifecycle of the coelacanth. Professor Mike Bruton, one of the leading authorities on coelacanths, was the Director of Education at the Aquarium at that time and his book When I was a Fish: Tales of an Ichthyologist shares fascinating stories about “old four legs”, as the coelacanth is affectionately referred to. It also sports a coelacanth on the cover. We highly recommend this memoir for an in-depth and engaging look at Prof Bruton's illustrious career, which includes lots of Aquarium history. 

Coelacanth illustration from Coastal Fishes of Southern Africa (2004) by Phil and Elaine Heemstra © NRF-SAIAB. 

The people behind the Aquarium’s current coelacanth are Marc van Tubbergh of The Whyabird Studio and Dillwynn Bester of Display Arts. Marc’s background is in photolithography and graphic design, “in the days when pens, paper and line cameras were the tools of the trade,” he says. “I fled this scene when I could no longer keep a computer from creeping onto my drawing board!”

Marc (left) and Dillwynn

And that’s when he launched the Whyabird Studio. “Since then I have undertaken a myriad of commissions incorporating design, illustration, painting, airbrushing, sculpture, murals, models, props, interiors, bespoke furniture (designing and manufacturing as required). Mostly I fly alone and collaborate with others as and when needed.

“In 2010, I met Dillwynn Bester of Display Arts who became part of the team who helped me build the world’s biggest vuvuzela, a commission I accepted from an advertising agency. Display Arts did the fiberglass and resin work on this monster.

“The Aquarium’s coelacanth project came my way through Display Arts. They are primarily a mould-making and casting company undertaking both fine art and industrial work. Dillwynn is a master at what he does. He has been entrusted to produce moulds and to cast resin-based pieces for many esteemed and established fine-art sculptors.

“Always daunted by a new commission and an unfamiliar client, I took some measurements, assembled a few references, did a few scribbles and presented them to Claire and the team. Their response was positive and trusting.

Marc's references and initial drawing

“I scaled my drawing to size and then mapped out the fossil on thick corrugated board, which became the foundation for the slab. The sculpting was done using ball clay, which is a little like plasticine.

The sculpting was done using ball clay

“Sculpting, for me, is like drawing in 3D.” – Marc van Tubbergh

Dillwynn produced the mould using silicon rubber with a fiberglass backing

“Once completed, I delivered the coelacanth sculpture to Display Arts and Dillwynn produced the mould using silicon rubber with a fiberglass backing. He then cast the coelacanth using a resin-based material, which I then had sandblasted before painting and sealing it."

Painting detail
Ready to deliver! 

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