Look carefully at this fish. It may bring you good fortune!
No, no, coelacanths aren’t the fish of Yeh-Shen, but they were referred to as the “Wish Fish” in many telegrams between JLB Smith and his colleagues in Grahamstown and back in England - though there had been reports of a “foul-tasting, oily, hideous fish” going around for decades, it seemed that since the first specimen was recovered intact, all of the reports evaporated like magic. No one heard of any new “uglyfish” caught by locals, no one caught any in the tedious trawling missions sent out by Rhodes University, nothing.
The first report of a new intact Coelacanth that had been caught by a local who had seen a reward poster happened at a most inopportune time: two days before Christmas Eve! Oh, it may seem like the perfect Christmas gift to Smith, looking back, but at the time it was a disaster. The fish had been caught out on the Cape, the other side of the country! And to make things worse, the next day was a Sunday, followed by Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day. There would be no way Smith could get to the fish in time to preserve it for science, because, as one visiting Portuguese friend once noted to him:
You may talk of Russia and the Iron Curtain, but it is nothing to South Africa on a Sunday or a holiday. That is an Iron Curtain. It shuts down, boom, boom, everything like that, and everything is dead!
A Sunday followed by three Bank Holidays was the worst possible outcome, especially since the trawler that the fish had come in on had to ship out again the day after Boxing Day.
Through an agonizing maze of run-arounds and unreachable telegraph lines, Smith and his team did eventually manage to stall the trawler one day, and alert the Prime Minister on Boxing Day that they (the Grahamstown team) had secured a coelacanth. Though by many he was considered an antagonist to the sciences, and doubly so to an extremely English center such as existed in Grahamstown, he saw the magnitude of this news, and saw what a boon it would be to South Africa to be able to announce it as soon as possible. With direct orders from the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense procured a light airplane that could take Smith where he needed to go to retrieve the fish, and Smith’s team made preparations to announce everything on 27 December.
The Search Beneath the Sea: The Story of the Coelacanth. J. L. B. Smith, 1956.