The East London museum was established in 1921. It houses one of the most comprehensive natural history collections in southern Africa and is considered to be one of the most interesting in the country.
The chief exhibit is, of course, that of the first coelacanth (pronounced ‘seelekant’) that became known to scientists worldwide. This strange looking fish was thought to have been extinct for 70 million years. Up to 1939, when the fish was netted by a trawler off the mouth of the Chalumna River near East London, it was known only as a fossil. The captain of the ship was wise enough to identify it as an oddity and report their catch to Marjorie Courtnay-Latimer, at that time the curator of the museum.
She hastened to call Professor JBL Smith, the famous ichthyologist, who was able to confirm that the fish, with its stumpy, leg-like fins and ‘armour plated’ scales was indeed a coelacanth. With evidence that the species existed 300 million years ago, it was no wonder that it was believed to have been extinct.
Professor Smith predicted that the fish would not normally be found in the seas near East London, but probably in more tropical waters in a remote area where people would not have been aware of its scientific significance. He was right! A second specimen was recorded more than a decade later - in 1952 - off the coast of the Comores Islands. It turned out that the locals had seen a few specimens previously. Since then more than a hundred specimens have been recorded, all in the vicinity of the Comores Islands.
Efforts are underway to try and protect the freaky fish, to ensure that it indeed doesn’t just remain on show in a museum.
Apart from our famous fish there are many other interesting items to go and inspect after you’ve landed – including (wait for it…) the only known Dodo egg! So let’s go catch that flight from Durban to East London already. What are we waiting for?