Milestones


This illustrated timeline records moments that defined the coelacanth quest and milestones in our institute's development.  

1938
The first living coelacanth is trawled off the Chalumna River near East London,  South Africa, on 23 December. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer sends a sketch of an odd fish to JLB Smith on Christmas Eve for identification. Smith later confirms this fish to be the first specimen of the "living" coelacanth. The original specimen (also called the 'type' specimen) can be seen at the East London Museum.

1939
JLB Smith, a Chemistry Professor at Rhodes University, publishes his description of Latimeria chalumnae Smith 1939, hailed as the most important zoological discovery of the 20th century;

1947
JLB Smith is appointed Professor and Head of the new Department of Ichthyology at Rhodes University with a research grant from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Smith’s collection of fish specimens forms the nucleus of what is today the National Fish Collection at SAIAB. Margaret Mary Smith is his research assistant;

1949
JLB Smith publishes The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, a book that quickly becomes an important reference worldwide;

1952
On 28 December JLB Smith embarks on a daring flight in a South African Air Force Dakota aircraft, authorised by the president of South Africa, to collect the second coelcanth from the Comoro Islands;

1956
JLB Smith publishes Old Fourlegs - The Story of the Coelacanth, which was translated into seven other languages;  also published for the first time: Ichthyological Bulletin of the Department of Icththology, Rhodes University, later continued under the name Ichthyology Bulletin of the J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology and recently renamed Smithiana to commemorate the memory of JLB and Margaret and their legacy of discovery in ichthyology and related fields;

1968
JLB Smith’s widow, Margaret Mary Smith, persuades Rhodes University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to establish the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology. Margaret Smith becomes the first Director;

1977
The JLB Smith Institute's modern, purpose-built, ichthyological research centre in Somerset Street is officially opened. At the time it is unique in the world.

 

1980
On 1 April the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology is declared a Cultural Institution under Act 29 of 1969, to be funded by the Department of National Education;

Professor Paul Skelton receives the first PhD in Ichthyology through the JLB Smith Institute which was conferred on him in April by Rhodes University;

 

1981
Rhodes University establishes a new Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science to continue the teaching of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science at Rhodes University after the Inatitute became a Declared Cultural Institution;

1986
The first collection database, containing 26 000 records, comes into use.
The first edition of Smiths' Sea Fishes, edited by Margaret M. Smith and Phillip C. Heemstra, is published.

1990
Hans Fricke, from the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, descends to the depths in the Jago submersible off the Chalumna River near East London. No coelacanths are found.

 



1999
The JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology becomes a Research Facility of the National Research Foundation

2000
During an exploratory dive to 104m in Jesser Canyon, Sodwana Bay on 28 October, Pieter Venter glimpses the tanatalising sight of a coelacanth lurking in a cave. On the surface he manages to convince his dive buddies, Peter Timm and Etienne le Roux, that he has become the first SCUBA-diver to see a coelacanth in its natural habitat. On 27 November 2000 the divers return and film three coelacanths. The following year they record more footage.

2001
The JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology is renamed the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB);

 

2001
After the discovery of coelacanths off Sodwana Bay, the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) is initiated with Dr Tony Ribbink as the leader.

2002
In March and April, Fricke and the Jago dive at Sodwana Bay, South Africa, and observe 15 coelacanths. 

2003
In April and May Fricke and the Jago dive at Sodwana Bay again and see 18 coelacanths. Scale samples are taken using a dart probe and sonic tagging is employed to track movements.

2004
In April and May the Jago descends at Sodwana Bay for the last time. Genetic analysis shows that the Comoran and South African coelacanths belong to the same species.

2005
In May the Falcon, a remotely operated vehicle under the direction of Dr Kerry Sink of ACEP, is deployed at Sodwana Bay. Eight coelacanths are sighted at 110m on one dive, and one on a dive the day before.

2005
Rhodes University and SAIAB sign a Memorandum of Understanding and a 99-year lease. Plans for a new collection facility are approved by the board of the National Research Foundation, and construction begins in September;

2007
On 27 March the state-of-the-art SAIAB Collection Facility is officially opened by Derek Hanekom, the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology;

   

2007
In September and October an expedition led by the Japanese aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima observes nine coelacanths off the coast of Tanzania using a remotely operated vehicle. These are the first Tanzanian coelacanths to be seen in situ. Members of the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme, from SAIAB, participate in the expedition.


2007
The second phase of ACEP, under the management of Dr Angus Paterson, starts. ACEP now forms the South African component of the five-year ASCLME Project funded by the GEF and implement by the UNDP.

2008
By the middle of May the two-year transfer of about 83 000 specimens from the basement of the original building to the new SAIAB Collection Facility is complete.

 


2008
The Department of Science and Technology (DST) makes funding available to ACEP through SAIAB to acquire a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and a coastal research platform (large ski-boat).

2009
Phase Two of the collection move is initiated in response to a major need to develop an appropriate Collection Management Centre (CMC). In June 2009 the CMC is officially named the JLB Smith Collection Management Centre. In order for SAIAB to function as a National Facility and open its collections and facilities to stakeholder users, the new CMC provides appropriate working facilities for the curation of the National Fish Collection and space for visiting scientists and students who need to use the collection for their research. The CMC is the nerve core from which the collections are managed.

2010
The new 13 m Research Vessel, uKwabebana, is officially launched on 25 March 2010, by the DST Director-General Dr Phil Mjwara. The vessel is managed by ACEP through SAIAB as a research platform of the National Research Foundation (NRF). In September, the ROV is deployed during a voyage of the research vessel Ellen Khuzwayo and trial dives conducted off the Agulhus Bank yield positive results.

2010
In September, the brand new Margaret Smith Library is opened by Minister of the DST, Naledi Pandor: Modern architectural design transforms the previously cold, dark, dungeon-like ground floor, which was custom built in 1975 to house the national fish collection, into an airy, light, interactive, academic hub which provides a stimulating study and meeting area for students and researchers from around the world.


2011
In May, South Africa enters a new era of deep sea research - the capacity of the ROV to explore the deep water environment that is home to coelacanths is tested up to depths of 120 m. The success of the expedition is documented on film  (see video clip.wmv - 6.52MB)


2011
In August Professor Paul Skelton retires after 16 years as Director of the Institute. Dr Angus Paterson (left) takes over as Managing Director.