A photo of the previously-unknown coelacanth relative discovered by Blacktip Island scuba divers Wednesday afternoon. (photo courtesy of Alberto Fernandez Fernandez)
A Blacktip Island divemaster scuba diving on the Caribbean island’s rugged east coast Wednesday discovered a previously-unknown fish, closely related to the ‘living fossil’ coelacanth native to the Indian Ocean.
“We went in from shore on a day off,” Eagle Ray Divers’ Alison Diesel said. “I shined my light under a ledge and Whammo! There’s this gnarly-ass fish I’d only seen in photos.
“I thought I was narked, but I shook my head a couple of times and it was still there,” Diesel said. “Alberto took photos to prove it. That sucker was as big as me. The fish, not Alberto.”
Marine biologists confirmed the photos were of a coelacanth-like fish.
“It’s not a coelacanth, but it’s certainly a Latimeriidae,” Tiperon University-Blacktip ichthyology chair George Grasby said. “Judging by the fins and scales, it probably dates to the early Eocene Epoch – just post K-T extinction event.
“We’re calling it the deelacanth, since that’s the next step up, alphabetically and evolution-wise,” Graysby said. “It also ties in with our tentative genus-species, since we’ve named it Latimeria dieselius after Alison.”
Researchers are keeping the deelacanth’s location and depth secret to safeguard the discovery.
“The last thing we need is some yahoo snagging this thing and selling it to the highest bidder,” marine biology professor Lucille Ray said. “All I’ll say is it’s down deeper than diving guests go, but that doesn’t rule out scuba cowboys or hand-line fishermen.
“Our researchers are the only ones diving there now, but they can’t stay that deep for long,” Ray said. “We’ve got technical gear coming in so we can equip everyone properly. We hope to find more than one dieselius and, ideally, a breeding population.”
Other scientists disputed how to best study the fish.
“Someone’s gotta bring a deelacanth to the lab so we can examine it properly,” TU-B visiting marine biology professor Chester Balao said. “Going down to look at it’s a fine thing, but it’s not doing anyone any good just swimming around down there. We’ve got to be able to cut one up and see what makes it tick.”
Local dive operations are launching technical diving programs in response to the discovery.
“They can’t keep this thing under wraps forever,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “There’s no secrets on Blacktip, and folks’ll pay top dollar to dive with something they’ve only seen on National Geographic.
“Only other place in the world to see these critters is East Africa and Indonesia,” Latner said. “All those live down around 300 feet, so we’ll be set up with mixed gasses, multi-tank rigs, the whole shebang. We’ve got ‘Have We Got A Deel For You’ t-shirts and caps and water bottles, too.”