There are only two known species of coelacanths, one lives near the Comoros Islands off the east coast of Africa, and the other in the waters off Sulawesi, Indonesia. In December 2000, divers also found a small coelacanth colony in underwater canyons near Sodwana Bay, adjacent to the iSimangaliso wetland park and world heritage site. There are now concerns that a new oil exploration venture in the area could jeopardise their future. Andrew Venter, head of the South Africa group Wildtrust, says an oil spill in the area could be a disaster: “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 decimated fish populations – so if we had an oil spill off iSimangaliso it is very likely it could wipe out these coelacanths.”

This isn’t the only threat. The West Indian Ocean population, which includes fish along the east coast of Africa and in the Comoros, is estimated to be between 230 and 650 fish. In the last couple of decades, deep water fishing trawlers along the coast have pulled up many coelacanths, revealing new populations but also reducing their numbers. There are more specific threats as well. Tanzania is shortly going to begin construction on the industrial Mwambani Port Project in the Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park. Construction would require submarine blasting and dredging and certainly destroy known coelacanth habitat. The National Marine Fisheries Service says that the port “would likely disrupt coelacanth habitat by direct elimination of deepwater shelters or by a large influx of siltation that would likely result in coelacanth displacement.”

Many scientists believe that the unique characteristics of the coelacanth represent an early step in the evolution of fish to terrestrial four-legged animals like amphibians. Coelacanths are elusive, deep-sea creatures, and can grow bigger than the averaged sized man. It is estimated that they live for up to 60 years or more. Unique characteristics include paired lobe fins that extend away from the body like legs and move in an alternating pattern, like a trotting horse.They also have: a hinged joint that enables them to open their mouths extremely wide for large prey; an oil-filled tube called a notochord, which serves as a backbone; thick scales common only to extinct fish; and an electrosensory rostral organ in the snout likely used to detect prey.

Further reading

Older than dinosaurs: last South African coelacanths threatened by oil exploration

This Fish Outlived Dinosaurs But Oil and Gas Drilling May Threaten Its Survival 

After 400 Million Years, Coelacanth at Risk of Extinction

Coelacanths, the World's Only Living 'Extinct' Fish