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


SAIAB 50 years


SAIAB celebrates 50 years as a Research Institute
 - watch the video

On 22 November 2019 SAIAB celebrated 50 years as a Research Institute. In 1968 JLB Smith’s widow, Margaret Mary Smith, persuaded Rhodes University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to establish the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology. Margaret Smith became the first Director and the newly constituted Board held its first meeting on 14 April 1969.


Inland Fisheries and Freshwater Ecology Research Chair at SAIAB

The DST/NRF Research Chair in Inland Fisheries and Freshwater Ecology is awarded to Dr Olaf Weyl, Principal Scientist in freshwater research at NRF-SAIAB. 


SAIAB celebrates the 75 year anniversary of the discovery of the living coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae (Smith 1939)

Student GraduatiionLibrary


ACEP Phuhlisa Programme begins – SAIAB’s key human capital development strategic initiative is a collaborative programme run with SAEON, the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University to accelerate  transformation of the marine science community

SAIAB unveils major Research Platforms:

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)

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

The new 13 m Research Vessel, uKwabelana, 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.


In September, the brand new Margaret Smith Library is opened by South African Minister of Science and Technology, 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.

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.

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.


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).


In September and October an expedition led by the Japanese aquarium Aquamarine Fukushimaobserves 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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


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.


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


On 31 December Professor Paul Skelton takes over as Director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology.

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.

Margaret Smith died in 1987. She had given 49 years of service to ichthyology.

The life and work of Margaret M. Smith / Mike Bruton (c.1986)

Tribute from the Margaret Smith Library


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.



On 01 April Dr Mike Bruton is appointed Director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology and the title of Professor is conferred on him by Rhodes University.


 Royal Engineeers Building (pic. William Martinson)


Dr Mike Bruton is instrumental in setting up a teaching department in Ichthyology at Rhodes University and is appointed Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of Department. The Department later becomes the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science (DIFS)

More on the Royal Engineers' Building the DIFS building.


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.

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.

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.

JLB Smith, his life, work and list of new species / Margaret M. Smith

JLB Smith publishes Old Fourlegs - The Story of the Coelacanth, which was translated into seven other languages.

The first issue of the Ichthyological Bulletin of the Department of Icththology, Rhodes University is published. Continues as 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.


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.

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

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.

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.

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) ca