I was bitten by a coelacanth
All right: it was already dead. But only just. Caroline Fotherby definitely has teethmarks on her wetsuit as a memento of the day she tried to save the life of the prehistoric fish.
It was early as I sat down to a leisurely breakfast on Grand Comore. But my peaceful start to the day was shattered by an urgent request to get down to nearby Island Ventures boathouse, where my husband Guy is general manager.
A Comorian fisherman had arrived with the news that he had caught a rare, prehistoric coelacanth in the early hours at a depth of 350m, about two-thirds of the way down the island's east coast.
He had brought the fish in to shallows by the shore and apparently it was still alive. But if nothing was done soon, it would not survive, for the fish was more used to depths of 150m-plus. In shallow water it would not be able to oxygenate itself and would suffocate.
The race was on to get to the fish, the plan being to guide it back down to a depth of 40m, where, we supposed, it might revive and continue down to its deep, dark home.
Our boat, Diver II, was fuelled hurriedly as Guy and other staff struggled into their gear. Claudia Stuerzenbecher, one of our instructors and a diving photographer, checked her camera.
The coelacanth, the marine equivalent of the dinosaur, has been around for some 350 million years. Until 1938 it was known only in fossil form and was thought to be extinct, but now it is known to live around the Comores, in the Indian Ocean.
Fishermen have accidentally pulled up the animal while bottom-fishing. But, unaware of its significance, they have usually thrown it away because it is inedible.
Wooden boats and Comorian children crowded around where the fish lay tethered about 1m beneath the fisherman's galawa, or dug-out boat. Diver II edged in, standing off sufficiently to avoid boats, people and rocks.
The amazing creature lay quietly, eyes staring at us, glazed and opaque. Its gills were only just moving, and a huge hook remained pierced through its gaping mouth.
I touched the fish and could feel it shudder. As its body contracted, its fins began to move in a strange, mechanical way. We had to act quickly in our bid to save it.
The first thing was to get the fisherman to release it. He was unimpressed by pleas to save it but, after some intense haggling, agreed to let it go.
Claudia photographed the coelacanth as the rest of us gently eased the fish from its tether and allowed it to sink slowly downward. Visibility was exceptional and I could make out the other divers and their precious charge as Claudia's camera flash momentarily highlighted an unforgettable scene.
But soon afterwards, to my dismay, the coelacanth stopped moving and began to float slowly upwards. There was nothing we could do but watch as the fish rose towards the surface, beaten in its struggle to live.
We were all very disappointed, but now, back on the surface, a fresh question arose. What was to be done with this prehistoric, inedible fish? If we paid the fisherman the large sum he was demanding, we would be setting a precendent by which coelacanths would become sought after, diminishing their numbers even more.
"Keep the fish," we told him, before finally being offered the coelacanth for the same price he would receive for an edible fish of the same weight. We made a stretcher out of lifejackets, slipped them under the coelacanth and used the jackets' straps to pull the fish up onto Diver II.br>
Feeling as empty as our scuba tanks, we all sat quietly. The fish lay at the back of the boat, its mouth agape, its eyes staring sightlessly at us. I picked up a towel, wet it and draped it over the fish, to keep it from drying out on the return trip.
Spirits rose, though, with a joke that I was the only diver on earth to have been bitten by a coelacanth. I examined tears on one arm of my lycra suit where, as we had manoeuvred the fish alongside, my elbow had disappeared into its mouth.
On a reflex action, the coelacanth's teeth had closed around my arm and, to the hysterical pleasure of our Comorian audience - not to mention my diving friends - I had screamed: "It's alive, it just bit me!".
The fish is now displayed at the boathouse for all to see.
Appeared in DIVER - March 1997