Like your 97-year-old aunt living beyond anyone she knew in her life, the Coelacanths go way back. Living past so many creatures, coming to us as fossils and only lately found alive and well. Back then they lived now extinct creatures like fish with bone plates on their heads and crocodile-like teeth. They lived with octopus-like creatures sporting 10-foot cones behind a cluster of tentacles. They lived with undersea giant scorpions, six feet long and who ultimately were the first pioneers of the land. Coelacanths lived through three mass extinctions—the Devonian that killed off 70% of marine life, and the Permian the greatest mass extinction (which did in the Trilobites) and the Cretaceous, which scraped dinosaurs off the stage.
These big fish look primitive, as if they needed some smoothing out. They look like an archetypal fish but with added parts, like a house remodeled by many carpenters. Big loaby fins, biceps with swim fins attached that move about pin wheeling as they balance in the drift. Floating home down the sea slopes to the blue black deep each night. Usually 2-3 feet long and 40 pounds however, a couple have come in weighing over 200 pounds. They live a slow well-timed lives basking in cave hideouts 700 feet below, rising each night to drift and feed in quiet slow motion. They are blue-black with some white scales mimicking the pattern of barnacles on their cave walls. They are the ultimate opportunists in a timeless endless routine, alive and looking just as they did in fossil rocks from 400,000,000 years past. Their skulls are jointed and moveable unlike any other vertebrate now alive. They live off the coast of Mozambique near the Comoro Islands. Their flesh cooks up into a boiling nauseating mess.
They were thought to be extinct for 80 million years but were discovered alive by simple fishermen in 1938. Their fossils have been found on every continent with the characteristic four big muscular fins, on arm like buds for the coming of terrestrial legs. Now, this creature is a placeholder for a piece of the Devonian, great great grandparent to the amphibians, from the time of the first woodsy canopy. From the first time leaf shadows danced across a forest floor.
Another group of Coelacanths was found in Indonesian waters in 1987, a distinct species of the same family, both unlike any living creature. They give birth to living young and have a special sensory organ on their upper lip receptive to electrical impulses used to locate each other and food. Living for us as a great curiosity, living for themselves forever.
I drew a lot of pictures of the Coelacanth in the late 80’s, a couple of watercolors and one oil painting where the Coelacanth, dark and toothy, half blind with its nocturnally adapted eyes, is rising open mouthed through a sea of colored balls about to take one of the white pond ducks floating serene on cobalt blue water. When you think modern humans have been around for maybe 200,000 years it would take 2000 cycles of human evolution to feel how long Coelacanth’s have been around.
Their brains occupy about 2% of capacity of their crania. Maybe that’s the secret as Hal Sirowitz says in his poem Ignorance is Bliss.
If ignorance is bliss, Father said,
Shouldn’t you be looking blissful?
You should check to see if you have
The right kind of ignorance. If you’re
Not getting the benefits that most people
Get from acting stupid, then you should
go back to what you always were—
being too smart for your own good.