Obituary: Peter Timm - Risk-taking deep-sea diver who found elusive coelacanth

29 June 2014 - 01:45
By Chris Barron
DEEP BLUE SEA: Peter Timm logged more than 300 dives beyond 100m, depths unimaginable for most divers
DEEP BLUE SEA: Peter Timm logged more than 300 dives beyond 100m, depths unimaginable for most divers


Peter Timm, who has died at the age of 51, was one of South Africa's leading deep-water divers and the first scuba diver in the world to see a coelacanth in its element.

He got to see this 2m-long living fossil with prodigious teeth and leg-like fins at a depth of 104m at Sodwana Bay, in KwaZulu-Natal, on October 28 2000, two years after beginning his search. He and two trainee divers he was with saw what they thought were three large potato bass in a cave.

"We had this big underwater torch," he explained.

"We saw pink eyes reflecting back at us, as bright as a car's reflectors, so we swam over to investigate. They were coelacanths!"

Scientists believed coelacanths, which came into existence 350 million years ago, had become extinct at least 65million years ago - until one was found in the net of an East London fishing trawler in 1938 and identified by a Rhodes University professor.

Timm eventually saw 50 coelacanths eyeball to eyeball in their own back yard. When asked what it was like, he said: "Ag, you know, at the end of the day it's just a fish."

As much as 104m under the ocean was the coelacanth's natural habitat, it also became Timm's. He was a pioneer of deep mixed-gas diving, called trimix diving, for which scuba divers use a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium to descend to depths of 100m and more.

It is extraordinarily dangerous and, although Timm did not have an elitist bone in his body, those qualified to do what he spent so much of his life doing form a small, elite club - and many of its members were taught by him.

He logged more than 300 dives beyond 100m, depths unimaginable for most divers. Most of were at Sodwana Bay in the fathomless caverns that lie attractively close to shore, where the continental shelf plummets into darkness. Having had several close calls, he was acutely aware of the risks.

"If you don't know what you're doing - and even if you do - you can end up dead very quickly," he said.

That was a few weeks before he died while helping another diver, who had got into trouble 60m down near the Aliwal shoal, off KwaZulu-Natal, while trying to recover a piece of equipment that had fallen off a research vessel.

Exceptionally quick-thinking, he had recovered from situations before in which less capable or intelligent divers would not have made it.

Timm loved and lived by the words of fellow trimix diver Forrest Young, who wrote: "In this, some might find me incautious, but exploration always has had an element of risk and, in the end, we are all mortal and it is how we carry on our lives during this brief existence that makes all the difference as to who we really are. Rest assured that we take every step to make our projects as safe as possible but, in the end, in the depths, it is between us and the deep blue sea."

Timm was born in Kroonstad in the Free State on February 15 1963, matriculated at Kroonstad High and became an electrician, starting his own business.

He began diving with the Welkom Underwater Club and in 1991 started trimix diving. In 1994, he opened Triton Dive Lodge in Sodwana Bay and built it into a successful business with a worldwide reputation.

Big, burly and friendly, Timm was not somebody who just dived for the record books or the T-shirt.

He was an amateur biologist and conservationist. He photographed and researched species, including different types of seaweed, invertebrates and fish new to science. He collected biological specimens from submarine canyons and was an important contributor to local marine science.

He is survived by his life partner, Eve Marshall, and two daughters.