In Search of the Tanzanian Coelacanth – By Eve Marshall

In search of the Tanzanian Coelacanth

It’s no easy feat to get 6 trimix divers from SA, England and the USA plus a film crew, enough kit and cylinders for 2 rebreathers and 4 open circuit divers, plus enough helium and oxygen to spend two weeks diving trimix off of the coast of Tanga in Tanzania.  Our expeditions purpose in 2012 was to search for and film the Tanzanian Coelacanth population for SA’s film production company “Earth Touch” they were making a documentary for National Geographic to be called "Dinofish". 

We had filmed the first part in Sodwana Bay with Dr Richard Pyle (Pyle deep stop fame) earlier in the year and had our fingers crossed for a successful expedition.

Heading the dive team was our own Peter Timm the man that would find them in the unexplored depths if anyone could, Robert Whitton – Dr Pyle’s technician and self proclaimed fish nerd from Hawaii, Dan Stevenson UK deep diving camera man, Eve Marshall, Werner Nell and Andre Willemse deep divers and back up support.

Unbelievably after months of preparation and due to  the amazing organisational skills of  Leah Buckwater from Earth Touch film productions, the dive team and film crew rendezvoused on the yacht “Lo Entropy” moored in Dar es Salam on time.  Perhaps more believable and true to Africa most of our equipment failed to make the flight due to some arrogant airport employee in Durban who just failed to load our “gas bottles” after promising all was in order and that he would.  Never the less we were on a schedule so we set sail the following morning for our 24 hour passage to Tanga in Northern Tanzania.  Unfortunately 2 of our crew had the unenviable task of tracking down our equipment and joining us by road in Tanga.

Lo Entropy is a beautiful 63 foot ketch built and owned by Geoff Bourne our captain.  We had an amazing chef and a competent crew to assist us and to sail her.  From Msasani Bay, Dar es Salam we set sail for Tanga.  The sea is a deep azure blue and along the way we witness clouds of birds dive bombing with precision and ruthlessness on numerous bait balls, the dophins herding the confused prey as the sea seems to boil with the activity.  Sunset is a glorius canvas of oranges and reds and as the sun slips below the horizon we are bathed in silvery moonlight, we have enough wind to make good way and we arrive in a sleepy little bay called Tanga in just 21 hours.

Still no tech kit on the horizon but at least we get the first gasses on board in the equatorial heat.  Finally I can bear it no more and I grab Goeffs dive gear and go check out the muck diving beneath the boat.  I found some strange sea cucumbers and many other critters whilst enjoying the 28 degree water.

Day three and we were still playing the waiting game.  A few of us head to town to check out the local market which is an area the size of a football pitch full of rows and rows of second hand clothing.  Its colourful, packed and noisy and pretty soon we have had enough and head back to the boat.  We snooze until a cry of “all hands on deck” rouses us, Leah and Grant Brokenshaw have arrived with all our equipment!  Straight away the excitement is tangible, we deploy the tenders and all head to shore to help transfer it.  Gas is blended, kit is checked after which we visit the yacht club for a few beers.  We now have an excited happy yacht full of eager divers.

At last its time to go look for coelacanths, cries of “hoist the main sail” and “weigh the anchor” and we are officially on route.  We pick up Eric our guide who owns a local spear fishing charter and two fishermen who have actually caught coelacanths in the area and

pool information as we motor up and down sounding the bottom and trying to get an idea of the bottom topography.  A plan starts to formulate.  We do a kit check out dive to 70 metres and practise deploying divers safely and accurately from the yacht.  It gets decided to deploy the re-breathers from the tender vessel and the two open circuit divers from the back of the yacht simultaneously on the captain’s command.  The try out dive is a success and in the approaching dark we start to blend gas for the following day.  Its important to get an early start in case we have to put emergency plans into action.  The closest chamber is 4-6 hours away and any accidents must be reported by 2 if there is any hope of an air evacuation.

The first 110 metre dive is on day five and the hunt for the elusive coelacanth is on!  The plan is 15 minutes BT with a TDT of 121 minutes (open circuit) longer for the re-breathers with 4 deep divers, 1 deep support and 1 shallow support messenger.  Everything goes according to plan and afterwards Peter tells us the drop was perfect.  The topography spookily identical to how the fishermen described it right down to a massive boulder on the edge of the drop off.  We wonder how on earth they know the bottom so well as they have no electronic equipment to assist them.  Funny the fishermen seem truly blessed here with the wind gently taking them out to sea and then turning in the afternoon to return them home safely.  The bottom at 100 metres where the fishermen caught the coelecanths is very similar to Sodwana Bay with a drop off at 80 metres which looks identical to Jesser Canyon with a steep wall full of caves and overhangs.  Its agreed to go back to the same spot the following day.  The high water temperature is the only unfavourable variable and something which Peter believes to be a crucial factor, but we know this can change daily.  The drop is 3-4 kms from shore on the continental shelf off the fishing village of Kigombo.  We moor for the night in the shelter of a tropical island.  The water is so hot its reaching 30 degrees on the surface, some of us sleep on deck in an attempt to cool down.  There are tropical showers nightly and the air temp during the day is around 32 degrees, thankfully we have the turquoise water to cool ourselves down during the day.

Its now day 6 and we move the dive site 100 metres north to a previous site where 7 or 8 ceolecanths had previously been caught by local fishermen.  The topography  is very promising  with many overhangs and caves, again the drop off starts at around 80 metres down to around 140 and then slopes off into inky darkness.   The wall is scattered with gorgonians, whips, sponges and black coral trees similar to Jesser Canyon in Sodwana Bay and there seem to be more fish around.  Again the dive goes well but no coelacanth sightings.

In the afternoon after blending and filling cylinders a few of the back up divers decide to dive on an adjacent shallow reef.  Although the majority of the area is overgrown with seaweed and scattered with coral rubble from being fished to death with nets ripping up anything and everything, there are still patches of healthy reef that have survived against the odds and these areas are absolutely stunning.  Its hard coral dominated with beautiful patches of  lettuce coral, brains, honeycombs, povona, huge porites bombies, fungia and acropora and plenty of fish life.  Wrasse, scorpions, firefish, Moorish idols, trumpets, rockcod, twobar humbugs and many anenome fish check us out.  Its heartbreaking actually as its inevitable that even these isolated patches of reef stand little chance of survival against the onslaught of the ruthless fishing and mining industries who are raping the East African coastline.

Early in the morning of day 7, the sea is like oil, the sunrise welcoming and we are killing time awaiting the tide so we can escape from our mooring tucked between two deserted islands.  I grab my camera and explore the sea floor below the boat.  What a surprise!  It’s a forest of sea pens intermingled with hundreds of large garden eels.  On the pens there are tiny brittles stars and minute shrimps.  Juvenile trigger fish are seeking shelter amongst the isolated coral heads and large red sea stars patrol the bottom looking for prey.  A family of cuttlefish glide past me and there are occasional iridescent jelly fish floating past housing schools of tiny fish in their tentacles.  Just below the boat a juvenile longfin batfish and schools of miniscule sergeant majors are sheltering as a solitary ramora darts anxiously around looking for a host.

The tides allow us to start our days deep diving and the dive plan is again 110 metres, another 100 metres further north.  The water temp has cooled by another degree at the bottom and there seems to be bigger fish around which is a good sign.  One of the divers spot a Seriola (tropical yellowtail) which is one of Peter’s indicators in finding the coelacanths at  Sodwana Bay.

After our dive we have a three hour sail back to Tanga to collect more gas and supplies and change some of the crew.  We sit on the deck in the breeze and enjoy the scenic sights of huge baobab trees on the horizon.  Soon we are safely moored and head ashore to stretch our legs and enjoy sundowners at the Tanga Yacht Club where we are treated to the most beautiful sunset of warm oranges and fiery reds setting over the bay.

The next day we are joined by Ben Hewlet the film director and the man who’s vision inspired this idyllic cruise.  We sail in the afternoon and reach our mooring just as the sun slips like molten lava below the horizon.

Day 9 sees us on the Northern end of Karanga Island.  The shelf drops off from 55m down past 110 metres and onto snow white sand with abundant fish life.  Because the team dived on the incoming tide they could deco on the wall, the water temperature was down to 23 degrees on the bottom and the dive again went well.

Day 10, same spot and at last its my turn to go to the bottom.  We descend through slightly murky water until we reach 60 metres and then the viz opens up to a deep azure blue as we drop through the thermoclines.  We level off at 110 metres though the ledge drops deeper and I find myself on a huge practically vertical wall that looms above me for some 60 metres like a football stadium.  Looking up actually makes me dizzy and it feels like the bottom of the world, like the cliff is leaning over and ready to break over me in a huge wave.  There are so many different shades of blue it is incredibly silent, still, alive, dark and light all at the same time.  When I shine my torch into the nooks and crannies the vibrant colours of the corals jump out at me.  All to soon our 15 minutes is over and we start ascending along the cliff taking photos as we go.  Finally we reach the summit and launch into the blue water for our long journey to the surface.  The afternoon is spent filming top side, filling cylinders and introducing some of the crew to the underwater world with discover scuba experiences at our anchorage.

As we have had no sightings our next dive for the elusive Tanzanian coelacanth is planned at a site close to where a japenese ROV team had two sightings in 170 metres of water.  The divers deploy but get dragged off by the current.  They decide to follow a six minute bailout plan instead of wasting gas.   Its disappointing as the water is the cleanest, calmest and more importantly coldest that its been for the whole expedition.  Being finished earlier the afternoon is spent satisfying the monster we had created namely discover scuba diving for our crew.  Conditions were not good but they loved every second of it and kept us going until after dark.

With only two diving days left we change the venue again, this time the depth was 114 and the divers followed the cliff up to 50 metres and still no coelecanths, time is running out and the final day dawns, the last chosen spot is literally half a km from land and still drops down to over 140 metres.  The temperature is at last the required 19 degrees and though this is the most promising habitat yet we run out of time and are left feeling that the Tanzanian coelacanth is just out of reach and will remain so until Posiedon decides that we are worthy of having his secrets revealed to us.  Spirits are still high as we know we have achieved what no-one else has attempted before on this remote, tropical stretch of coastline.  And who knows, maybe one day another opportunity will come around and we may even get lucky!!!  Thank you Earth Touch for making it possible.