This story appears in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It's not every day that a living fossil shows up in a fisherman's net.
But that's what happened in 1938, when a South African museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer spied a bizarre creature with thick scales, unusual fins, and an extra lobe on its tail, amid an otherwise ordinary haul of fish. Though she didn't know it straightaway, Courtenay-Latimer had rediscovered the coelacanth, which was assumed to have died out at the end of the Cretaceous period but somehow outlasted many of its prehistoric peers, dwelling deep in the ocean, undisturbed—and undetected—for eons.
Since this chance sighting, Latimeria chalumnae have been found in several pockets in the Indian Ocean. No one knows how many there are—maybe as few as 1,000 or as many as 10,000. Because of the depth of their habitat, they have mainly been photographed by submersibles and remotely operated vehicles. Divers first documented the fish in 2000; in January and February 2010, a specially trained team dived deep to take pictures of a small colony in Sodwana Bay, South Africa.