Senckenberg am Meer, Wilhelmshaven & Hamburg

Our History

A look back at almost a century of marine research

Senckenberg’s first field station was founded in 1928 by the geologist and palaeontologist Prof. Dr. Rudolf Richter to establish a permanent research facility at the North Sea. It is the world’s first geoscientifically oriented marine research facility and his idea of actualism is groundbreaking: to explain phenomena that occurred millions of years ago, he observes current processes. His simple and at the same time ingenious idea: physical laws do not change and therefore the present is the key to the past.

The concept goes around the world and is now one of the foundations of the geosciences. With “Senckenberg am Meer”, Richter lays the foundation for the future expansion of marine research at Senckenberg. Today, the institute is a centre of worldwide biological and geological coastal and marine research with working areas from the North Sea to the deep sea and from the tropics to the polar regions.


Through the research work of Rudolf Richter, who as a section head of the palaeontological department regularly spent several weeks a year in the East Frisian Wadden Sea from 1919 onwards pursuing palaeontological and geological studies, Senckenberg marine research took on a very special course. He gradually developed the programme of an actuopalaeontology and geology, which was concerned with describing and understanding processes taking place on the seabed today. This was also to provide a key to understanding past processes, of which only traces and fossilised documents are seen in palaeontology and geology today. With the appointment of Rudolf Richter as Associate Professor of Earth History and Palaeontology in 1925, the programmatic approach also gained the necessary currency. Probably since this time, but certainly since 1927, Rudolf Richter was looking for a permanent location for a Senckenberg marine geological station on the North Sea. The choice fell on Wilhelmshaven.

Working in the mudflats – Wilhelm Krüger (left) examining mussel gravels (photo F. Trusheim, preserved by H.-E. Reineck)
A meeting in Wilhelmshaven in 1925 – from right Rudolf Richter, Wilhelm Krüger and Heinrich Schütte (photographer unknown, preserved by I. Kress).


Rudolf Richter describes the reasons in his report to the then museum director F. Drevermann. To this day, nothing can be added in terms of topicality and clarity: “The other locations, as was to be expected, proved to be less suitable. Only Wilhelmshaven offers the prospect of always being able to go to sea without any costs (!) and to live outside…In addition, there is the connection to other facilities. I must tell you about the new hydraulic engineering research institute; in future it will be a new attraction for cotton wool excursions….. A solid brick building comes into consideration…. Currently rented out as a stable etc. and used up…. The location is very favourable: directly at the harbour ! … in a small wood still to be cleared, which belongs to the navy and is available for possible expansion.”

In addition to the ideal location with direct access to the sea and the tidal flats, another important factor was the interest of the navy, in particular of naval chief civil engineer Dr. h. c. Wilhelm Krüger, who knew the importance of sedimentological processes for harbour construction measures and was also interested in geology himself. This also provided the link to the navy leadership. Admiral Hans Zenker, then Chief of Naval Operations, actively supported the project. This makes the positive statement of the head of the responsible navy shipyard, Rear Admiral and Chief Shipyard Director Walther Franz, understandable (in a letter to R. Richter on 7 January 1928): “I have instructed the authorities in question to examine all details as quickly as possible and hereby promise the shipyard’s support in every respect.


The beginning took place on the Schleuseninsel. A former horse stable of the Imperial Navy became the nucleus, soon another building was added and the structure was substantially expanded after the Second World War. Already in the first months of 1928, the small clinker building on the Schleuseninsel, which had previously been rented out as a stable, was converted into a laboratory using simple means. On 1 April 1928, the palaeontologist Ferdinand Trusheim, financed by the Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft (Emergency Association of German Science), took up his duties here, as did the museum assistant Albert Schwarz in the same year. The latter took over the local management from 1929 and, in contrast to the actuopalaeontologist F. Trusheim, was intended as the actuogeologist. A. Schwarz also organised and directed the first expansion. In 1930, F. Trusheim went to Würzburg as an assistant, later to the oil industry. A. Schwarz worked until 1934 and then moved to the private sector. In the same year, Walter Häntzschel took over the management of the institute. He made important contributions to the stratification of recent shallow-sea deposits, but also to actuopalaeontology. He thus united the previously divided geological and palaeontological work in one person. Such versatility was in demand and necessary in the start-up phase. W. Häntzschel left Senckenberg am Meer in 1938 to take up a position as curator at the Geological Museum in Dresden.

The “nucleus” of Senckenberg am Meer – the old building (“Pferdestall”) on the Schleuseninsel (Photo F. Trusheim, preserved by H.-E. Reineck)
The first extension in 1929 – on the right the “horse stable” (photo F. Trusheim, preserved by H.-E. Reineck)
The first “Senckenberg” (photo estate H.-E. Reineck) – Franz Hecht built a paddle boat with his brother in the boat workshop of a childhood friend in 1931. He named it “Senckenberg” out of gratitude. The boat with a box-like cross-section is 5.20 m long, copper riveted and nailed and made of Gabon wood (okoumé, a type of mahogany).  
DZMB Forschungsflotte
1932 “Seehase” and 1933 “Senckenberg I”. M. B. “Seehase” (front)
Acquired and commissioned in 1932; type: Helgoland surfboat; propulsion: 4-cylinder Ford engine, sailing possible; cruising area: Jade to Minsener-Oldeoog and Mellum; sold 1936
F. B. “Senckenberg” (behind)
Originally a naval river minesweeper, when acquired under the name “Sirius”; overall length: 15m; propulsion: 2x Daimler, 60 hp; built: 1917; acquired presumably in 1933, then converted; hardly 1-2 voyages; sold 1935.


In 1938, Wilhelm Schäfer took over the management of Senckenberg am Meer. He was the main zoologist, but also had a strong inclination towards artistic design. In the “Schäfer era”, actuopalaeontology and facies science were particularly tackled. In the short time before Schäfer was called up for military service in 1940, he produced fundamental works, such as a facies study of the German Wadden Sea published in 1941. The institute was partially destroyed by bombs in the winter of 1940. The building was transferred to the German Wehrmacht administration. While the library and equipment stored in the cellar were still secured during this time, the entire inventory was lost after occupation troops moved in for several months after April 1945 and the building, which remained empty for about a year, was looted several times.


The years from 1946 to 1954 were a lean period. In 1947, Wilhelm Schäfer and Konrad Lüders began to expand and furnish the institute, using furnishings and laboratory equipment from the naval shipyard. After the currency reform in 1948, there was no longer a material budget for Senckenberg am Meer, as the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft did not have enough funds. It was also unclear at this time whether the Senckenberg site in Wilhelmshaven should and could be maintained at all. During this time of organising and lack, Wilhelm Schäfer tirelessly published a series of actuopalaeontological observations on organisms of the immediately neighbouring shallow sea. He thus secured the scientific substance.

When Senckenberg was included in the federal and state funding under the Königstein Agreement in 1954, the real expansion began. In the same year, Hans-Erich Reineck, another geologist, came to Wilhelmshaven. In 1959, a residential wing was added to the institute building and the zoologist Gotthard Richter came to Wilhelmshaven as an assistant. From 1961, there was a separate budget for the use of the “Astarte”. This phase ended with Wilhelm Schäfer’s departure. He was appointed director of the entire research institute by the board of directors of the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft on 24 March 1961.

DZMB Forschungsflotte
1947 “Auster” Acquired and commissioned in 1947; type: Helgoland surfboat from naval heritage; overall length: 10m; maximum breadth: 3m; propulsion: 40 hp diesel engine; cruising area: Jade and coastal sea.
1950 “Hanne” Acquisition and commissioning 1950; type: Danish fishing cutter; length overall: 19m; propulsion: 150 hp diesel engine; equipment: side gallows, winches, radiotelephony, echo sounder; crew: 4 sea fishermen; cruising area: small-scale deep-sea fishing, predominantly German Bight; financing: commercial fishing, supply of the seawater aquarium.
1953 “Astarte” Acquisition and commissioning: 1953, from 1961 main use by Senckenberg; Type: Finkenwärder Bünnkutter; Year of construction: 1904; Overall length: 20.9m; Width on frames: 6.1m; Propulsion: Originally sailing ship, later 50 hp auxiliary engine, before 1961 retrofit new main engine 145 hp; Equipment: Oil-hydraulic winch, echograph, marine radio, DECCA navigator, radar; Cruising area: German Bight (up to about 1 day’s journey north of Helgoland); crew: captain and 1 sailor, later 1 helmsman; financed: since 1954 (Senckenberg’s inclusion in the Königstein Agreement) from fixed budget funds as charter from the owner (Sander-Jakobs KG, later Jade-Dienst); out of service since 1976 with the commissioning of the “SENCKENBERG”.


After Wilhelm Schäfer left for Frankfurt, Hans-Erich Reineck took over the management of Senckenberg am Meer. Gotthard Richter headed the Section for Marine Zoology from 1961 to 1963. Reineck’s time saw the greatest expansion in both staff and buildings. This expansion was made financially feasible by the economic upswing in the Federal Republic of Germany, but it was made possible first and foremost by a convincing and concise scientific programme. Whereas the focus had previously been on actuopalaeontology, especially in the sense of transferring auto-ecological observations into the past, the emphasis now shifted to the study of entire facies areas. The main interest was in the beach, foreshore and shelf mud, i.e. the deeper water. The description of a depositional and habitat area requires an interdisciplinary team. This was initially established with the help of the German Research Foundation. In 1968, 1969 and 1970, the 4 scientists involved were appointed to permanent positions: Günther Hertweck (marine palaeontologist), Jürgen Dörjes (marine biologist), Sybille Gadow (sediment petrographist) and Friedrich Wunderlich (marine geologist). In addition, there were technical staff. As early as 1966, a large extension building had been erected with funds from the Volkswagenwerk Foundation, which was topped up in 1972 with funds from the Federal Ministry of Education and Science. The scientific output of this phase is particularly characterised by teamwork carried out in the North Sea as well as in the Mediterranean (Italy, Spain) and overseas (North America, Taiwan). The offshore work in the North Sea was greatly supported by the construction of the new research cutter “Senckenberg” in 1976. Since then, Frankfurt’s involvement in North Sea biology has also increased strongly again.

With Burghard W. Flemming as head of Senckenberg am Meer in 1984, a focus was placed on the quantification of depositional processes recorded over large areas. The tradition of coherent processing of marine areas was thus taken up and considerably refined. This phase also includes similar investigations in marine palaeontology and sedimentary petrography, which also take place within the framework of larger projects and lead to large-scale results. Overall, the focus was also on research into large- and small-scale dynamics. In marine biology, this concerns time series studies to quantify environmental trends and the dependence of benthic communities, which used to be considered rather static, on environmental parameters such as sediment and nutrient input. This large-scale dynamic aspect has been characteristic of the research of all units of the Wilhelmshaven Institute ever since.


With the founding of the German Centre for Marine Biodiversity Research (DZMB), another department came to the Wilhelmshaven site. The DZMB is headed by Prof. Dr. Pedro Martinez-Arbizu. Whereas “Senckenberg am Meer” had previously focused on North Sea research, the DZMB added a global aspect of biodiversity recording. This essential expansion could not remain without consequences in terms of space. The old buildings had become too cramped and the construction no longer met modern requirements. With the help of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, three navy-owned buildings on the Fliegerdeich were finally found and given to Senckenberg for use free of charge. The conversion into modern institute buildings was made possible by the financial commitment of the Federal Government, the State of Lower Saxony, the City of Wilhelmshaven and the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft. After its completion, both departments were able to move in November 2003 and fill the new domicile with life. Since 2007, the “Senckenberg am Meer” site has been a member of the Nordwest Verbund Meeresforschung (Northwest Marine Research Network), a pooling of expertise from marine research institutions in Bremen and Lower Saxony.


Burghard W. Flemming was followed in 2010 by the appointment of André Freiwald as Head of the Department of Marine Research and at the same time Professor of Marine Geology at the University of Bremen, where he is anchored at the Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM). Freiwald and his research group investigate recent and Cenozoic biosedimentary systems of the shelf seas in non-tropical latitudes. The current research focus is on carbonate-producing marine ecosystems, such as calcareous algal beds and deep-water coral reefs, with regard to their production and bioerosion balances, their species composition and their biotic/abiotic interactions with the environment. While at the Wilhelmshaven site mainly recent processes and geo-ecosystems are investigated, at the MARUM in Bremen biosedimentary systems are examined for their suitability as fossil environmental recorders to answer palaeoceanographic and -climatic questions. In this way, the original idea behind the foundation of the Institute for Actuopalaeontology in 1928 finds a contemporary continuation in times of rapidly changing environmental conditions and their resulting consequences for the environment and society in coastal regions.