A thrilling scientific adventure about the world’s obsession with an elusive fish once thought extinct: Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time (2000) is simply captivating. If you have read Emily Voigt’s The Dragon Behind the Glass (2016) and enjoyed learning about a fascinating fish called the arowana, then you will love this historical look at the coelacanth (see-la-kanth). Voigt and Weinberg’s stories may be about obsessions with coveted fish, but the similarities end there. While Voigt approaches her story with the smart, analytical skepticism of a journalist, Weinberg indulges readers in an emotional tale ripe with adventure, romance, and awe-inspiring science. Her story will reel you in – hook, line, and sinker.
A Fish Caught in Time is a beautiful historical account of the rediscovery of the coelacanth, an ancient species of fish that was originally known only by its fossils. Weinberg opens her tale by sharing the startling discovery of the first living coelacanth by a young museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who spotted it aboard a trawler’s deck among other specimens he had brought her. Weinberg seamlessly weaves science into her storytelling, wrapping her readers up in her tale of scientists and fishermen desperately searching for a live coelacanth. She lets her readers learn alongside scientists as they make thrilling discoveries and observations of a fish they once believed to be extinct. Weinberg captures the drama that unfolds as the scientific world becomes obsessed with the coelacanth, endangering the fish in their hunt for the perfect specimen.nWeinberg takes us through the lives of those who were touched by the quest for the fish. The way Voigt describes how enthusiasts (and herself) became obsessed with finding a rare arowana in the wild is quite similar to Weinberg’s description of ichthyologists growing obsessed with their quest for a specimen.
Check out this super-cute illustrated history of the coelacanth, a living fossil, produced by TedEd:
Sprinkled with old black-and-white photographs, Weinberg text is lively and entertaining and filled with sobering wisdom. She is not afraid to address the issue of sexism in science during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a problem raised when scientists questioned why the Latimeria chalumnae was named after Latimer, a female scientist without a professional background. Even more controversial was the idea that the coelacanth was a missing link in the evolutionary chain: an editorial from the Manchester Guardian read “The theory of apartheid and the superiority of White over Black would take a nasty blow if…it could be shown that the common ancestor [of men] is the Coelacanth, a mere fish.” In addition to that controversy, the idea of paying native fishermen to catch coelacanths for scientists raised ethical questions.
Weinberg does not tread lightly over the controversial subjects that arise throughout her text. She dives into the history of the Comoros, an archipelago off the east coast of Africa, where many coelacanth have been found. She truthfully presents the effects of the rise of the coelacanth on Comoran culture and its influence. She describes how their society is organized and how the coelacanth benefited poor fishermen and shook the foundation of their social structure. What I liked best of all was Weinberg’s personal narrative spent aboard a Comoran fishing boat, witnessing firsthand the nighttime fishing tradition of the Comoran fishermen.
Weinberg’s book is a treasure trove of good stories that weave together the history of the coelacanth and its influence on the world.