He may have started life as a boy on a Free State farm, far from the ocean, but Peter Timm became a leading expert in the highly dangerous field of deep-water diving to depths of 100m or more – and he achieved well-deserved fame as “the man who brought the coelacanth home to South Africa”.
Tragically, the big personality Timm died last month in a diving accident in the Aliwal Shoal area off the KwaZulu-Natal coast. The accident was not related to his passion for the “living fossil” fish, of which he had seen 50 swimming in their natural deep-ocean habitat over the past 14 years, while also helping to make numerous other marine science discoveries through his deep-diving expertise.
Last week, one of his dive pupils, SA National Biodiversity Institute marine programme manager, Dr Kerry Sink, paid a moving tribute to him in a public lecture that was part of the 15th Southern African Marine Science Symposium at Stellenbosch
While the coelacanth was one of the world’s most extraordinary fishes, “and certainly a flagship species for South Africa”, Timm had been one of the more extraordinary human beings, Sink said.
She said that coelacanth fossils first appeared in the fossil record about 400 million years ago when they were common.
But they disappeared from the record about 70 million years ago, and weren’t seen again until December 1938 when trawler skipper Captain Hendrik Goosen pulled one up in his nets off the mouth of the Chalumna River, near East London.
“It was a zoological sensation – the equivalent of finding a pterodactyl perched on the cable car on Table Mountain tomorrow morning. That’s the kind of surprise it gave people,” Sink said.
A second coelacanth was found in waters off the Comoros in 1952, and since then others have been found in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar and Indonesia. But until 2000, it was not seen again in South African waters.
Sink said Timm, who owned a dive charter business at Sodwana Bay, had been a pioneer in mixed-gas or trimix deep diving and had logged more 320 dives below 100m. “He was a very experienced technical diver.”
His relationship with the coelacanth had started in 1995 when he and fellow trimix divers first started exploring the “deep blue” off Sodwana Bay, where they found canyons and deep reef habitats.
In 1998 they set out on their first coelacanth expedition here, based on a hunch by veterinary professor, Johnny van der Walt, who knew about deep cave habitats in the Comoros where the coelacanth had been found.
They found several new species, although no coelacanths. Then, on a training dive in October 2000, Timm and two companions saw the eyes of what could have been three coelacanths reflecting in the light of their torches.
One of the divers was convinced they were coelacanths but Timm was not, Sink said.
“So they took about a month to mobilise an expedition with cameras and they went back, and filmed South Africa’s living coelacanth for the first time. It was very exciting, and they saw Jessie, who is now number one in our coelacanth catalogue.”
Five of these beautiful creatures were seen in 2000 and a formal scientific coelacanth programme was initiated.
Timm was also the first to obtain a scale sample from a coelacanth, using an airgun from a submersible craft.
“He has many bar stories about sampling a coelacanth.”
Since then, much of what is known about the South African coelacanths has come from the “very talented group of deep divers” known as the Alternative Dive Group, of which Timm was part.
The group has done 15 expeditions over the past 10 years and has been instrumental in building up a catalogue of individual coelacanths – identifiable because of their unique markings.
Stressing the collaborative nature of coelacanth research, Sink paid particular tribute to Timm “for bringing the coelacanth back to South Africa and for unlocking all these important research opportunities”.
“He really is a role model for the values of public participation in marine science. There have been so many new discoveries, and I hope the public will be inspired.”