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Reef Encounters: Dr Dirk Petersen

For the latest installment of our Reef Encounters series, we spoke to Dr. Dirk Petersen, the founder and Executive Director of SECORE International, a leading nonprofit organisation bringing like-minded people and organisations together to give coral reefs a future. 

What is your typical day?

Unless I am on a field trip, I am spending most of my day at the laptop in my office in Bremen with correspondence and conference calls.

Calls to Australia and the Pacific region are in the morning, those to the USA and the Atlantic region are in the afternoon and sometimes in the evening. I'll spend a lot of times addressing all kinds of budgets, policies, and research and education programmes.

During my travels, I visit our office in Miami, meet with partners and funders or simply enjoy a dive with our staff at one of our field sites. Keeping involved in the underwater work means a lot to me, even if it is just joining the collection of coral gametes during a night dive or exploring one of our research or restoration dive sites.

  • Dr Dirk Petersen, "Keeping involved in the underwater work means a lot to me even if it is just joining the collection of coral gametes during a night dive", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio
    "Keeping involved in the underwater work means a lot to me even if it is just joining the collection of coral gametes during a night dive", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

While studying for my Masters in Biology at Munich, I got the opportunity to work with coral larvae in an aquarium environment. These little critters were absolutely fascinating to me and a great inspiration to start exploring sexual coral reproduction.

When I did my PhD at the University of Duisburg-Essen I worked at the marine laboratory at the Rotterdam Zoo where I was maintaining aquarium systems to develop coral breeding techniques. From the beginning, I had the idea to share my findings with colleagues in the science and aquarium field.

I believed that bringing together scientists and aquarists would be very beneficial to advance coral restoration.

What inspires you in your work?

Ever since I dived for the first time in a coral reef, this wonderful underwater world has captured my imagination.

Corals are a miracle, especially when it comes to sexual reproduction. I was fascinated to manipulate reproduction, for example, to be able to control coral larval settlement within a microhabitat scale of a few millimeters, which would determine survival or death of a coral recruit.

I think my greatest inspiration is taking novel directions, putting an idea into action and joining forces with others to face big challenges. This has led to some amazing breakthroughs in the past that outsiders did not believe we would accomplish, but we did as a group.

I have been fortunate enough to work together with some of the greatest minds in the aquarium and science community, a team that will keep on going until the problem is solved.   

  • Dr Dirk Petersen 02, "Ever since I dived for the first time in a coral reef this wonderful underwater world has captured my imagination.", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Vanessa Cara-Kerr
    "Ever since I dived for the first time in a coral reef this wonderful underwater world has captured my imagination.", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Vanessa Cara-Kerr

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

Coral restoration could eventually be as commonly and effectively applied as reforestation has been applied for centuries. Restoration will change the landscape of reefs as it has done with forests.

Future reefs will look different to today’s reefs, which doesn’t really matter as long as they provide similar ecological and economic services. Nonetheless, coral restoration can only buy us some time. Time that we must use to solve the greatest challenge of all time – climate change.

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

Corals, of course, the most beautiful, diverse and magical organisms on our planet.

My favorite coral is the elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata). With its brownish branches, it is not one of those fancy, colorful coral species, but it makes a powerful stand against massive waves and storms where other corals would not have any chance to resist. Just this species alone absorbs more than 90% of wave energy, which would otherwise crush the coast, and creates shelter for many other species.

At the same time, the elkhorn coral is definitely the most fragile coral species I have ever worked with. If you touch it, you will spot your fingerprints the next day because the coral’s tissue will have died.

  • Dr Dirk Petersen 03, Dr. Petersen inspecting some of his favourite type of coral, the elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), (C) Paul Selvaggio
    Dr. Petersen inspecting some of his favourite type of coral, the elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), (C) Paul Selvaggio

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

During a scouting trip for a new field location in Guam, I saw some beer cans rolling around in the sand between corals. A few metres further we discovered a huge field of beer cans that were lying on the ground.

Fortunately, those cans were removed in a large clean-up a few weeks later by Underwater World, the University of Guam, and local dive schools.

What’s the next big thing for your work?

The Global Coral Restoration Project that we have launched last year together with the California Academy of Sciences and The Nature Conservancy is for sure the next big thing.

The project involves many partners and we are looking for more to join in the coming years. The goal is to develop and implement novel technologies that will allow restoration at a significantly larger scale than currently possible.

  • Dr Dirk Petersen 04, "My reef heroes are all those out of the spotlight who are teaching children about the beauty and vulnerability of coral reefs", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio
    "My reef heroes are all those out of the spotlight who are teaching children about the beauty and vulnerability of coral reefs", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

My reef heroes are all those out of the spotlight who are teaching children about the beauty and vulnerability of coral reefs, and how small daily habits can make a big difference to the environment.