Scientists collecting data on a research expedition in Sodwana Bay off South Africa’s eastern coast this week captured footage of a coelacanth, a rarely seen fish once thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1938.

Although the species managed a remarkable comeback, coelacanths are still believed to be incredibly rare and only 33 individuals are known to science – all of them catalogued in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The latest clip stars a fish called “Eric” who was captured on camera 125 metres below the surface with the help of a remote-operated vehicle (ROV).

Eric was first identified in 2009 and last seen in 2013. “We are happy that he seems to be very healthy," Dr Kerry Sink of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) told News24. To help keep tabs on the coelacanth population, Eric was fitted with a satellite tag that allows researchers to track his movements for six months. Tagging animals can involve risks, explains Sink, so the research team were glad to have tracked Eric down.

Since 2000, coelacanths have only been filmed four times by ROVs according to Dr Jean Harris of WILDOCEANS, who was on board the vessel that made the discovery on Tuesday and describes the moment as "extraordinary and special".

"Since they are so rare it was like looking for a needle in a haystack so there was huge excitement on board!" she told News24.

Earth Touch producer Ben Hewett can relate: “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. Therefore, it’s always a great relief to know that they’re still surviving in this forever-changing climate."

Hewett was part of a team that worked on a National Geographic-Earth Touch co-production about the rediscovery of the coelacanth and recalls the excitement of finally capturing one of these living fossils on camera: “After diving to depths below 120m along the continental shelf for nearly a month, 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.”

The latest sighting will give researchers insight into the habitat and lifespan of the species. "It lets us know that coelacanth[s] are resident to the iSimangaliso park – this can help us work out how long they live, but also that there are so few because if there were more we would be seeing a lot more individuals," Harris explains.

Header image: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez