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History of the Department of Marine Science

The Department of Marine Science was established in 1992 and has grown rapidly to be a multidisciplinary department that focuses on postgraduate teaching and pure and applied research in marine science and aquaculture. It has close ties with other departments on campus, with government departments, crown research institutes and industry.

The department is made up of full and part time academic staff, full and part time general staff and approximately 50 postgraduate students. Staff and students of the Department conduct research throughout the South Island of New Zealand including Marlborough Sounds, Otago Harbour, Stewart Island and Fiordland.

Most of our courses are taught from our campus base at the University, while the main laboratory is the Portobello Marine Laboratory situated on Otago Harbour 20km from the University. Laboratories for some courses are held at Portobello and many graduate students and staff do their research there.

The University's public marine education program, which includes the NZ Marine Studies Centre and aquarium, is also situated on the Portobello peninsula next to the Marine Lab.

The department operates a number of vessels, the largest of which is the 21m Polaris II. The Polaris II is based at the Portobello Marine Laboratory.

Development of the Department of Marine Science at the University of Otago

Modified from original by John Jillett, 2000

Marine Science, established in 1992, is the most recent science department at the University of Otago. The historical roots of the department extend back to the appointment of Captain F.W. Hutton, previously Otago provincial geologist, as Professor of Natural Science in 1876. Even before Hutton, the transactions of the New Zealand Institute published several papers on marine topics by Dunedin authors.

The development of marine science at Otago was closely intertwined with the development of the Portobello Marine Laboratory, formerly a fish hatchery and marine investigation station, which was administratively independent for nearly 50 years until it was taken over by the University of Otago in 1951.


1982 Introduction of a MSc in Marine Science with John Jillett as course director, contributions from a wide range of science departments (Botany, Chemistry, Geology, Microbiology, Physics, Surveying and Zoology).
1982 Permission given for preparation of working drawings for new laboratory.
1984 Contract let for the construction of the new laboratory. All on-going research work at the Marine Laboratory severely disrupted for the next three years.
1985 Bill Tubman retires as skipper of the research vessel, replaced by Chris Spiers.
1987 New laboratory building commissioned at Portobello, equipment grant of $1.83M awarded. Proposal initiated for a "Maritime Study Centre" on-site at Portobello.
1988 Research vessel refitted and re-engined.
1989 Professor Philip Mladenov appointed to newly established Chair of Marine Science to include the MSc course in Marine Science. Fiordland becomes a major target for research work.
1990 NZ Marine Study Centre is adopted as the science project for major fund-raising.
1992 Establishment of the Department of Marine Science with its administrative base on main campus.
1993 Provision of more adequate main-campus base for the Department of Marine Science.
1996 Contracts let for construction of the Marine Studies Centre.
2001 Dr Mike Barker appointed Head of Department
2004 Marine Science Prizes established: John Jillett Prize in Marine Science; Beryl Brewin Prize in Marine Science; and Elizabeth Batham Prize in Marine Science
2004 Dr Steve Dawson and Dr Liz Slooten awarded Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement
2005 Chris Spiers retires as skipper of the research vessel, replaced by Bill Dickson.
2006 A new research vessel , Polaris II, purchased
2006 Undergraduate BAppSc in Aquaculture and Fisheries offered
2007 Dr Keith Probert appointed Head of Department
2008 Dr Rebecca McLeod - McDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year
2009 Professor Gary Wilson appointed Head of Department
2009 Aquarium and Teaching Lab at Portobello closed to the public because it was deemed earthquake-prone
2013 Associate Professor Abby Smith appointed Head of Department
2014 Undergraduate BSc in Oceanography offered, first students enrol
2014 Rakiura Field Station opened in Oban, Stewart Island
2015 Department reaches 100 Effective Full-Time Students (EFTS)
2015 Dr Christina Riesselman awarded UNESCO L’Oreal for Women in Science Fellowship