On Board With: Dirk Petersen

Learn more about the importance of coral reefs and how to protect them from coral sexologist Dirk Petersen.

On Board With: Dirk Petersen
On Board With: Dirk PetersenPaul Selvaggio and Secore

If you love boats and water, odds are you love coral reefs. It’s no secret that the world’s coral reefs are in decline. We caught up with German scientist Dirk Petersen of Secore, who studies coral reproduction to help restore reefs.

Your group, Secore, stands for sexual coral reproduction. Coral sex sounds … intriguing.
We focus on sexual reproduction. There are two critically endangered species, elkhorn coral and staghorn coral — the first reef-building coral ever included in the Endangered Species Act — that it has turned out have trouble reproducing. We do fertilization under controlled conditions and get fertilization rates of 90 or more percent. Then we put them back to the reef, and that way we can help the coral. Since 2010, we have been doing restoration in Curacao, and we have now 100 colonies, each the size of a soccer ball, that we have successfully planted. This is a major success.

When will you be able to completely restore a reef?
It is not possible to restore a complete coral reef. What is most important is to address the focus on a few key species and put your energy to restore these key species, which will develop the framework for all the other species. We are convinced that once the key species is established it will attract other animals and plants to get established again.

How much time do you spend under water getting the coral to have sex?
Usually each dive is an hour. I have a thousand hours of diving time.

Uh, I went on a walk-in dive in Jordan's Gulf of Aqaba, and on my walk to deeper water, I think I may have stepped on coral.
Oh. [Long sigh.] I've been to the Red Sea and have seen people sitting on coral and walking on coral, and it's painful. They just don't know better. It can be small thing to explain how to do something differently, but a small act for them makes a big difference for the environment.

Jeez, I've killed Earth.
People are convinced our world is doomed, and we are trying to motivate them with positive events. Coral spawning is spectacular when you see it, so we are hoping to show them something beautiful.

But are reefs that vital?
They benefit the coastal population with fisheries. There is a big benefit for tourism, not only for people who dive, but also white, sandy beaches and blue water, which are there only because there is a coral reef. Then there is the pharmaceutical industry, because coral's chemical defenses are important for new medicines. There are a few hundred billion dollars of economic benefits a year.