Maps connecting people to help save reefs: Profile of Dr Chris Roelfsema


I did my first dive in a lake in Holland in 1981, not knowing that 40 years later I would lead a team that mapped the world’s coral reefs. My first 400 or 500 dives were in lakes with an average 3m visibility and water temperatures between 2 and 18°C, with an average of 9°C. If I was lucky, I saw two fish. As a teenager I wanted to study marine biology and follow my hero Jacques Cousteau, but instead I ended up learning how to map the shape of the sea bottom as a hydrographer. As such I was getting experience on dredging projects in Scotland and oil rigs in the North Sea, very far from coral reefs – and not ideal for my active social life.

So, I changed tack and studied geodetic engineering, gaining my first exposure to remote sensing and to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), as for my thesis research I mapped glaciers in Greenland in 1993. During my studies, I kept on diving and even got paid to teach diving – in muddy lakes. In 1988, I saw my first coral reef, in the Red Sea. Many more would follow. After programming in GIS in an office without windows for two years my partner and I quit our jobs in 1995, and became full-time dive instructors, first in Jamaica and then in Malaysia.

“Mum, we’ll only stay one year in Australia and then we will come home” (phone call home, 1999)

At the end of our instructor stint, in 1998, on our way back to Holland, we did the backpacker thing, flew to Australia, bought a car in Brisbane and drove to Cairns. We made a short visit to Ian Tibbitts at The University of Queensland, who introduced us to Bill Dennison, and two days later we were counting seagrass shoots on the bottom of the eastern banks in Moreton Bay. That field trip in January 1998 resulted in part-time work as GIS/remote sensing/boating/diving person with Marine Botany at UQ. It also led to a postgraduate diploma, which included my first field trip to Heron Island and working with Stuart Phinn on mapping seagrass in Moreton Bay and coral at Heron Island.

“You are a scientist”, my Dad said. “No”, I said. (campfire conversation, 2002)

From 1999, I started working at UQ, initially with Marine Botany at the Centre for Marine Studies, then from 2000 with the Biophysical Remote Sensing Group, which is now the Remote Sensing Research Centre and part of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. I specialised in developing field and/or remote sensing methods to map and monitor coral reef and seagrass environments throughout the world, finishing my PhD in 2010. I soon realised that working with citizen science is a great opportunity to teach people about the marine environment, give them skills, get data and make a difference through projects with the University Underwater Club, CoralWatch, Reef Check and Great Reef Census.

Working as a marine geographer with many people globally

Fortunate I am to collaborate with so many scientists, conservationists, managers, teachers, field experts, volunteers, photographers, ecologists, coders, statisticians, fish biologists, planners, law makers, etc, etc – from all around the world. In most of these collaborations, developing maps or monitoring approaches of the marine environment is necessary to provide valuable spatial information that helps us to understand, protect and conserve coral reefs and seagrass habitats.

Success in developing large-scale reef mapping methods led to funding in 2018 to map for the first time the benthic habitats of each shallow reef of the Great Barrier Reef. That led in turn to mapping the world’s coral reefs through the Allen Coral Atlas. The methods my team and I developed have impacted and are still impacting how coral reefs and seagrass habitat can better be conserved and managed. And that is pretty cool. Providing data to support conservation of these valuable coral reef and seagrass environments is key. It requires citizen scientists, research scientists and managers to work together help make the community aware of what they can do to help these habitats that we depend on.