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Pim Bongaerts, the Academy's newest coral biologist, comes to San Francisco after 10+ years studying Australia's Great Barrier Reef. 

From Sea Level to the Twilight Zone

For Dr. Pim Bongaerts, it was love at first dive.

Growing up in a small town in the Netherlands, Bongaerts dreamed of the tropics, creating miniature edens of his own in a rainforest terrarium. As an undergraduate, he jumped at the opportunity to study the real thing, spending several months on a field internship in Costa Rica. His career trajectory was decidedly terrestrial—until his first SCUBA dive in Panama. He fell in love with the underwater world and recalibrated his academic compass toward a career in marine biology, completing a master’s in limnology and oceanography from the University of Amsterdam.

After returning to the Caribbean to conduct fieldwork in coral physiology off the island of Curaçao, Bongaerts set his sights on the holy grail of coral reefs: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He earned his doctorate at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, applying his aptitude for technology and computers to a molecular approach to studying coral reef ecology.

With more than 10 years of experience studying the Great Barrier Reef—including two spent at a research station on tiny Heron Island—Bongaerts brings formidable expertise to the Academy as Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and Hope for Reefs co-leader. He will also round out our “twilight zone” dream team, shedding light on the shadowy, little-known mesophotic zone 100-500 feet below the ocean’s surface.

  • Pim Bongaerts on beach in scuba gear
    Pim and his wife Kyra Hay surface after collecting specimens in Curaçao. © Norbert Englebert
  • Pim Bongaerts and Norbert Englebert in a submersible
    Pim and colleague Norbert Englebert descending in the “Curasub” submersible © Barry Brown
  • Cool perspective photo of underwater ROV and boat
    Pim deploying a ROV on the Great Barrier Reef. © Richard Vevers
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Curator Q&A

Despite being in the middle of an intercontinental move with a toddler in tow, Pim still found time for this deep-dive over email with the Academy's website editor.

What intrigues you most about mesophotic coral reefs?

My major interest in mesophotic depths stems from the fact that we still know so little about these communities. Some of the most fundamental questions regarding mesophotic coral reefs remain unanswered, making them a really interesting focus of study. There is of course a good reason we know so little about these communities: accessing these depths is complicated, and we usually only get minutes to study them, rather than the hours that can be spent studying terrestrial or shallow marine systems. Part of my enjoyment working at these depths stems from coming up with logistical solutions allowing us to collect the data we need.

What is your favorite mesophotic reef creature?

The Silvertip shark (Carcharhinus albimarginatus). Although by no means exclusive to mesophotic depths, it is usually one of the first large fish residents to greet us at mesophotic depths when we dive a remote site for the first time. They are very curious and usually follow us closely, almost as if they are the local park ranger making sure that we stick to our permitted “bag limits.”

What work are you most proud of?

Less than a decade ago, literally all we knew about mesophotic coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef stemmed from a handful of observations in the 1980s. Since then, we have made some fantastic progress in our understanding of these communities through a series of research expeditions in collaboration with colleagues from The University of Queensland, the Museum of Tropical Queensland, and James Cook University. Given that these mesophotic reef systems are estimated to occupy a similar surface area to that of shallow reef areas on the Great Barrier Reef, I am proud to have contributed to these joint efforts.

How might you use—or add to—the Academy’s scientific collections?

One of the great challenges working on coral reefs is getting a handle on documenting patterns of coral biodiversity. Scleractinian corals are notoriously hard to study. However, given the rapid decline of coral reefs around the world, solving these challenges [has] become increasingly pressing. I will therefore be working closely with the collections in Invertebrate Zoology and Geology as well as the Center for Comparative Genomics to [develop] a broader integrated solution allowing us to standardize assessments in both shallow and deep reef environments.Through the extensive fieldwork planned through the Hope for Reefs initiative, we anticipate substantially expand[ing] the scleractinian coral collections in the museum.

  • Pim Bongaerts diving in Pohnpei with healthy coral reef
    Pim with a stand of healthy coral in Pohnpei (Micronesia). © Luiz Rocha
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Are there any exciting technologies on the horizon that might change the way you work?

The rapid developments in genome sequencing methods are extremely exciting, and are revolutionizing how we conduct biological research. These technologies are becoming more affordable and accessible, and sequencing entire genomes with a device that is the size of a stapler [is] now a reality.

How do you remain hopeful in the face of environmental gloom-and-doom?

I’m not going to lie: witnessing first-hand the major coral reef decline over the past couple decades has been difficult. However, I feel the recent mass bleaching has been a major wake-up call, and has resulted in a growing concern for coral reefs [among] people across the world. What I find most hopeful is our youth and their position towards climate change: While many of our national leaders still choose to conveniently ignore the harsh realities of climate change, young people generally seem to get the issue, accept it as a fact, and [want to tackle] this global threat.

What are the top three things the average person can do to reduce their impact on our oceans?

Becoming a vegetarian is one. Yes, meat can be delicious, but it is essentially a luxury good that is highly inefficient to produce and has a massive carbon footprint. And it’s never been easier to become a vegetarian—there is just so much delicious vegetarian food on offer everywhere!

Living in and with the climate is another one. Yes, we want to be comfortable, but we can be so within a rather broad temperature range, and heating/cooling is a major contributor to carbon emissions.

Lastly, I think we as consumers need to become much more critical toward what companies we support through buying their products. We should support companies that do the right thing, and at the same time avoid—and call out—those ones that have unsustainable practices.

Do you have a favorite exhibit at the Academy yet?

Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed, of course!

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View our press release to learn more about Pim's work.

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Invertebrate Zoology & Geology at the Academy

Explore IZG projects and expeditions, meet curators and researchers, and browse some of the 2.5 million specimens in the collection.