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Robin Stobbs' The Enviable Task

Following the visit by staff of the Smith Institute in 1990, and presentation of their conservation report and proposals, the Comoran Government presented the Institute with a frozen coelacanth. Mr Ali Mroudjae, the then Minister of Production, made the presentation on behalf of President Said Mohamed Djohar

On this, my fourth visit to the Islands, we returned to Grahamstown with two frozen coelacanths - one for the Smith Institute and the other destined for the University of Guelph in Canada. We were not prepared to return with frozen specimens so had to arrange for a local fundi to make a wooden 'coffin' for the one fish, and used a discarded outboard motor box for the other. For insulation we scrounged around for foam styrene and I commandeered the mylar space blankets from our medi box

In 1991 the South African Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr RF "Pik" Botha, was present at an official meeting with the Comorian government to mark a renewed trade and tourism agreement between the two countries. As a token of this agreement the Comorian President presented a large, and still frozen, coelacanth to the SA government. "Pik" Botha, not understanding French, turned to the SA Consul, Marco Boni, asking what all the waffle was about. Marco told "Pik" that he was now the 'owner' of a frozen coelacanth. Minister Botha, already fed up with protracted meetings, replied, 'En wat doen ek nou met 'n fo**** vis?' ('And what am I to do with a f***ing fish'). Marco suggested it be forwarded to the Smith Institute and so, in due course, I was asked to prepare all the necessary gear to go to the Comoros, collect and pack this large frozen fish, and bring it back to Grahamstown

Again I had the enviable task (????) of travelling to the Comoros; this time as a guest of the SA government. On this occasion I had time to prepare, and ship over, a sturdy plywood 'coffin' lined with 100mm thick foam styrene sheets and packed with foam styrene chips. The technique I had evolved with the two previous specimens worked extremely well. On unpacking the fish in Grahamstown, some 30 hours after it was packed in Moroni, it was still as solid as a rock and covered in a frost 'bloom'

The biggest problems I encountered in transporting frozen specimens in the Comoros are the high ambient heat and painfully slow manner in which anything and everything moves in the tropics! Advance preparation is the keynote to success. All necessary packing boxes and materials need to be shipped to `Moroni in advance, and the relevant authorities and airline personnel alerted, both in the Comoros and at the destination

The fishes, taken from the SOCOVIA freezers at around minus 40 degrees Celsius must be immediately wrapped in a protective cloth shroud to adequately pad the many sharp, spiny scales and fin spines, and then further wrapped in three or four layers of Mylar reflective plastic film 'exposure blanket' with the reflective layer to the inside. The 'mummified' fish is then placed in an insulated box surrounded by at least 100mm (4 inches) of polystyrene foam. The empty spaces around the fish are also packed with styrene foam chips or beads

Air freight packages must arrive at Hahaya Airport many hours in advance of departure and there are no freezer facilities at the airport

For 3 hours the boxes stood in the 30+ degrees Celsius heat of Hahaya Airport

This is the most critical part of the journey and the reason for more than adequate insulation. The three frozen specimens I have travelled with were all placed in airport freezers on arrival in Johannesburg as at that time there were no connecting flights for Port Elizabeth until early the following morning

Almost exactly 30 hours after leaving the SOCOVIA freezers in Moroni they were placed, still frozen solid, in the freezer of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology in Grahamstown

A coelacanth scale showing its clear growth rings


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