South Africa
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April - May 2013

Gombessa I

Locally known as Gombessa, the cœlacanth measures two metres long and was once thought to have become extinct 70 million years ago. However, this rare fish, when discovered alive in 1938 has come to represent one of the most important zoological discoveries of the 20th century. It is indeed seen as the "transition animal" from backboned fish to the earliest four-legged vertebrate land animals, and with its lobe fins and "primitive lung", this fish is the longed-for living proof of early life’s transition from water to land, which took place 370 million years ago. For over a century, the cœlacanth has sparked intense debate between scientists and creationists

It seemed obvious that a scientific expedition should be organized in order to study the fish underwater and gain knowledge on it. Geneticists, paleontologists and biologists from the French National Museum of Natural History linked to the CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity were brought together by Laurent Ballesta for this mission achieved in 2013. To reach this living legend, Laurent Ballesta and his team of divers had to perform daily deep water dives to the Jesser Canyon caves, 120 metres below the surface: a depth where each minute passed underwater is paid for in long hours of decompression. 

The Gombessa I expedition, the result of two years of scientific, logistical and human preparation, enabled for the first time observations and scientific experiments to be carried out in contact with a living coelacanth.

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