As a group of divers prepared to leap into the waters around Pumula off South Africa's eastern coastline last Friday (22 November), they joked with one another about the possibility of finding a coelacanth hiding out in the caves and cracks of the reef. Once thought to be extinct until their rediscovery in 1938, coelacanths are something of a holy grail for many divers. Only 33 individuals are known to science, all of them catalogued in iSimangaliso Wetland Park about 330 kilometres north of Pumula. Although the group were confident that the habitat around the reef they were diving was suitable for coelacanths, they hardly expected to actually find one.

But find one they did, and the divers returned with video evidence to prove it.

"I thought possibly I’d been overcome by nitrogen narcosis or the helium had turned hallucinogenic," joked Mike Fraser who was one of the divers in the water when the coelacanth was spotted. His disbelief changed to awe and then "absolute elation" as he watched the prehistoric fish floating above a crag at 72 metres below the surface.

Also present for the historic moment were Fraser's son Alan (affectionately known as Moo), and recreational divers Bruce Henderson and Mossie Carstens. Henderson and Carstens had planned a dive weekend in iSimangaliso Wetland Park to search for the rarely seen fish, but their plans fell through, so in a favourable twist of fate they opted to try their luck off Pumula instead. The four divers, along with Ben Henderson and Marc Dukes who remained in the boat, became the first to record concrete evidence of a coelacanth outside of the Marine Protected Area around Sodwana Bay.

“This is a very significant discovery and it’s very exciting and interesting," Professor Kerry Sink, manager of the marine programme at the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), told News24. "There have been reports of people sighting them but we’ve never had proof like this before. This discovery will enable us to do more research."

For Bruce Henderson, who captured the clip above, the sighting marks the culmination of a lifelong ambition to spot one of these "living fossils" in its natural environment. "I have never seen a diver more elated than Bruce when the unimaginable came to pass!" Fraser told us via email, adding that Henderson's delighted screams which can be overheard on the video have earned him the nicknamed "Howlin' Henderson".

It's a feeling of exultation that Earth Touch producer Ben Hewett can relate to: “It’s always very special to hear of these sightings,” he says. “Since filming the coelacanth back in 2011 off Sodwana, for the wildlife documentary Dinofish, there have been very few recorded sightings of these mysterious fish," he adds, recalling the time he worked with a crew on a National Geographic-Earth Touch co-production about the rediscovery of the coelacanth. "Our team were fortunate enough to spend 12 very special minutes with a fish that was believed to have gone extinct 65 million years ago – diving with a living fossil! These once-in-a-lifetime experiences are too special for words and will stay with me, the crew and everyone involved forever.”

Header image: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez