Featherbed Co. Blog

The story of a Coelacanth, a man, and Featherbed Nature Reserve…. (and it is not a fish story!)

A quick internet search tells us that Coelacanths, are from the order Coelacanthiformes, (an ancient group of lobe-finned fish, also known as Sarcopterygii), and in the class Actinistia. In layman’s terms, they are more closely related to lungfish and tetrapods (including amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) than to ray-finned fish.The oldest known coelacanth fossils are over 410 million years old, and they were thought to have become extinct around 66 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous. That all changed when Coelacanths were discovered living off the east coast of South Africa in 1938, and this is where our story begins.

coelacanth fish

Photocredit: Photo via <a href="https://www.goodfreephotos.com/">Good Free Photos</a>


In December 1938, a fisherman found an unusual-looking fish among his catch. He contacted Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, curator of the East London Museum, and asked whether she wanted to take a look at the strange-looking fish. She, in turn, contacted a Rhodes University ichthyologist (a marine biologist who studies different fish species), J.L.B. Smith, sending him drawings of the fish, and asking him to identify it. He confirmed the fish's importance with a famous telegram: "Most Important. Preserve Skeleton and Gills = Fish Described.”When Smith finally saw the remains of the fish, in February 1939, he confirmed that it was indeed a coelacanth, and named it Latimeria chalumnae (after Majorie).

Its discovery 66 million years after its supposed extinction makes the coelacanth the best-known example of a “Lazarus taxon”, an evolutionary line that was thought to be extinct and are rediscovered much later.

Smith had to find another specimen, in order to zoologically document the coelacanth. He distributed thousands of leaflets along the east coast of Africa, offering a reward to any fisherman who caught one. He had to wait until 24 December 1952 to finally get word that a coelacanth had been caught in the Comoros Islands. The story goes that unable to find anyone prepared to fly him to the Comoros to retrieve the fish, Smith phoned the Prime Minister, Dr. D.F. Malan, who contacted the Minister of Defence with instructions that the South African Air Force sends a SAAF Dakota to collect the preserved fish for study at Grahamstown. The second coelacanth was successfully retrieved on 29 December 1952. Between 1938 and 1975, 84 specimens were caught and recorded.

560dce68 coelacanth research gets a leg up

Photocredit: Mail & Guardian  J.L.B. Smith and the coelacanth


Smith and his wife Margaret jointly authored the popular Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, which was first published in 1949, followed by other writings until 1968. After Smith’s death in 1968, the J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology (now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity) was established by Rhodes University. Margaret Smith was appointed as the first Director.

In 1956, using the proceeds of the sale of his book Old Fourlegs (about the rediscovery of the coelacanth), J.L.B. Smith bought the western Head at Knysna. Rumour has it that his intention was to preserve his favourite fishing spot. He also bought Featherbed Bay. Featherbed derived its name from sailors who cast anchor into the tranquil bay waters to enjoy what felt like “sleeping on a feather bed” after passing the Bar. After Smith's death in 1968, his son William Smith (born 25 June 1939), a South African science and mathematics teacher inherited and later extended the Featherbed Nature Reserve, which was proclaimed a private Nature Reserve in 1958. To this day Featherbed Co. remains committed to the conservation legacy of the Smiths.

While rebuilding the after the big fires, some of J.L.B. Smith’s salvaged fishing gear was refurbished into wall art for our Milkwood Restaurant.

Featherbed September 2022 90

Featherbed September 2022 86

Featherbed September 2022 87 1


Read for about coelacanths: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/facts/coelacanths and https://mg.co.za/article/2013-05-09-coelacanth-research-gets-a-leg-up/


Read more about JLB Smith: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0038-23532019000100003

Featherbed Co. remembers….. and rebuilds

Featherbed Co. remembers….. and rebuilds


History will refer to the fires of June 2017 as the “The Knysna Fires”. The magnitude of the destruction and loss left in it’s

wake is incalculable.

A number of natural forces conspired to fuel the run-away fires, which within a few hours became near impossible to

contain and suppress. The fires raged in the wake of the worst storm the Western and Southern Cape experienced in 30

years. The resultant strong berg wind conditions and dried out vegetation after the long drought in the area, combined with

high temperatures created the perfect conditions for a firestorm. As gale force winds fanned the flames, it became clear

that prevailing conditions would not only make firefighting difficult, but also that the local firefighting resources would not

be enough. The fires raged for 12 days, before declared “over”. The aftermath: the tragic loss of seven lives, the largest

number of buildings destroyed by fire ever in South Africa (close to 1200) and about 20 000 hectares of vegetation burnt,

much of it natural forest, fynbos and alien invasive plant species.

Read more about the fires here https://www.knysnamuseums.co.za/pages/knysna-fires-2017/


Featherbed Co. was not spared from the destruction. 95% of the reserve had burnt, most of the vegetation in the reserve

was reduced to ashes, with only a few small portions of indigenous forest left standing (the forest on the mountainside

above Needle Point and Coffin Bay, and the forest above the site where our restaurant had stood), our restaurant and most

of the visitor facilities were also destroyed.


Featherbed had to take stock and rebuild what was lost, but decided to come back bigger that ever before. We decided to

pay homage to what once was and repurposed the some of kitchen items which were spared the carnage. The chandelliers

were designed and manufactured by Adele Webster.



We also salvaged timber from some of the burnt indigenous trees to build the tables for our new function venue.


Our small tribute to what had been lost, serves as a reminder of our commitment to not only the restoration of the natural

habitat at Featherbed, but also to what can be done to prevent that horror from happening again.

Conservation of the natural fauna and flora of the Knysna estuary and the Knysna Heads remain our commitment to the

generations to come.


Read here on Featherbed Co’s rehabilitation of the vegetation. https://www.knysnafeatherbed.com/conservation/post-firerehabilitation.


Passing the Bar with mariner, coxswain, and shipwright, John Benn.


Featherbed Co September 2022 190 copy

Visitors to Knysna are familiar with The John Benn, a double-decker floating restaurant offering daily Lagoon cruises to the Knysna Heads. But, who was John Benn?


To understand this colourful mariner we should unpack the meaning of the title of this piece: Passing the Bar” means entering or leaving the Knysna Heads, while a coxswain is a person who steers a ship, and a shipwright is a shipbuilder. John Benn was all three, had an impressive resume, and left a maritime legacy that lasted for several generations.

Fifteen pilots, coxswains, and harbour masters served the Port of Knysna in the 136 years from its first establishment in 1818 to its closing in 1954. According to archives of the Knysna Museum, the first four pilots were all government appointees and their tenures will not go down in history as particularly successful or memorable. Their less than lustrous track records also lead to the closure of the post of Pilot in 1826, after which, according to the Government Gazette of 14th June 1826 Masters of Vessels frequenting that River must make their own arrangements for procuring what assistance they may think necessary for passing the Bar. The Flag will, however, be hoisted at the Signal Post as usual when the Bar is passable.”

For the next 33 years, the Rex family – John, Jacob, and Edward, the sons of George Rex, voluntarily hoisted the signals on the Eastern Head to advise ships whether or not it was safe to cross the Bar. As the Knysa economy grew and the port of Knysna became busier and busier, the government eventually re-established the post of pilot in 1859.

The next three appointments were: William Jackson – who was transferred in 1865; followed up by two men George Bruce (appointed coxswain) who resigned in 1868 and James Miller (appointed pilot) who retired in 1867.

The office of pilot and harbour master was abolished again after Millers retirement, and thereafter the post of pilot was put out to tender on an annual basis, with John Benn winning the initial award in 1868. He and then his son, John II, continued to win the tender every year until 1881, when the post of pilot was formalised again – and John Benn II retained the appointment. Our John Benn died in office in 1877, but the post of pilot was filled by a Benn until 1912 and again from 1933 - 1954.

1868: John Benn – died in office in 1877;

1877: John Benn II – retired in 1912 (during 35 years in office, he saved 16 lives on the bar);

1888: Donald Benn – assistant pilot to his brother, John Ben II, from 1888. Retired in 1912.

Following Donalds retirement: 

  • 1912: Lauritz Marchussen (previously master of the Thesen Line's ss Agnar) – retired 1930;
  • 1930: Bernard Lynch – transferred in 1931;
  • 1931: William Rose – transferred in 1933.

And finally, the last two pilots to hold the post were both Benns: 

  • 1933: Thomas Conning Benn (son of John Benn II) (previously signalman and assistant pilot) – retired in 1945;
  • 1945: Reuben Benn – (son of Thomas Benn) transferred to Durban when the port of Knysna was permanently closed in 1954”

(Source: https://www.knysnamuseums.co.za/pages/benn-pilots-knysna-heads/)

P-J Gronum tells The John Benn Story as part of his The Founders Of Knysna” series. (Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/649652601769070/) The John Benn story is a fascinating story of a young shipwright who is dispatched to the Cape Colony in 1840, never to return to his homeland, ever again. His story is one of a formidable maritime figure and a life filled with adventure, action, and heroics.

Gronum tells us that Benn, after arriving in Simons Town as a young naval officer waited for his first official designation for a year, before he is finally sent east to supervise everything maritime” at the busy Breede River landings. His impact on the shipping activities was invaluable and he was especially respected for his meticulous system of good safety regulations, accurate channel depth charts, clear signals, and orderly landing procedures.

Early in 1944, the 32-year-old Benn is sent further east to Mossel Bay. He is commission includes the design and manufacture of landing crafts and barges. It is here where he bumps into Ann Smith, a girl he had met briefly some years earlier but, this time he falls in love. They were married not long after and the family grew to a household of five by 1847.

Johns bravery, when the Harriet ran aground and the friendship established with the captain of the doomed ship, Captain Thomas Horn, is well documented and an interesting read. For the purpose of our story, it is enough to say that the friendship between the two men would last till the end of their days and that Captain Thomas Horn introduced John Benn to Freemasonry.


Featherbed September 2022 52 

The Knysna Heads 2022.


On 15 March 1855 the Musquash ran aground at Coney Glen. Benn is summoned to Melville by his friend, Thomas Horn, to come help. Too late to save the ship, he organises a team to salvage the timber and other valuable items from the rocks. Horn promptly offers Benn the job to build him a new ship - a project which would take three and a half years to complete. Benn resigns from the navy and his family follows him to Melville. (Melville and Newhaven are the two towns at the Knysna Lagoon). On 31 January 1861, The Freemasons of Knysna consecrate their new building and one of the first formalities conducted in the new lodge is the Initiation and First Degree of John Benn. It was a very proud moment for John Benn. The settlements on the Knysna River flourished.

In an article, The Benn family, Pilots at The Heads, written for the Knysna Museum (An article in the series, Our Recent Past) author Martin Hatchuel, tells us that Benn completes the Schooner, Annie Benn in 1867. It is his own vessel and only the third ship built in Knysna.  Hatchuel continues that John Benn often varied his activities as a boatbuilder by helping pilots Jackson and Miller with their duties at The Heads, so when the office of harbourmaster and pilot was abolished in 1867 – and instead put out to tender – he was the ideal applicant for the position”. John Benn takes on the responsibilities of pilot and coxswain in 1868 with his son, John II, as his assistant.

John Benn dies on the 20th May 1877 of a mysterious virus at the age of 65. John and Ann Benn raised remarkable children, a lineage of skilled, oceanic descendants who became the Pilots at Melville Port and Knysna Port for many years.


We believe it to be only fitting to name a boat steeped in history, after a legendary pilot of a bygone era.

Read more on our John Benn Experiences https://featherbed.activitar.com/services/

Featherbed co. supports Knysna Seahorse research

Tales of seahorses are almost always filled with magical wonder and until you see one for yourself, it is easy to believe that these beautiful creatures are pure make-believe.

Legends and ancient stories of seahorses tell of the Greek sea god Poseidon galloping through the oceans on a golden chariot pulled by Hippocampus, the beast that was half horse and half fish. Phoenicians and Etruscans often painted these charming creatures on the walls of burial chambers, accompanying the dead on their voyage across the seas and into the afterlife...

Read more ...