Date released
09 April 2024
Man smiling holding an award
Dr Dexter dela Cruz was named the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australian Alumni Excellence Awards Alumnus of the Year for his work on coral reef restoration. Image: ACIAR

As a young boy, Dexter dela Cruz was enthralled by a Japanese television series about a young girl and her marine biologist father, and their quest to find and protect a magical luminous whale.

It fired his imagination and his determination to become a marine biologist, although it wasn’t until he was at university that he actually saw close-up the coral reefs that have become his realm as a marine scientist.

‘I remember the first time I dived on a reef and saw a beautiful blue starfish. I yelled with excitement … not a good thing to do under water,’ recalled Dr dela Cruz.

Since that first dive, the restoration of coral reef ecosystems that sustain millions of people living on tropical coastlines around the world has become his life.

That fairytale inspiration steered him to a career that began in 2012 as a research assistant on an ACIAR-supported reef restoration project, after gaining his master degree with the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.

This led to a John Allwright Fellowship (JAF) and, through this, a PhD from Southern Cross University, New South Wales, which he completed in 2019.

John Allwright Fellowships

The John Allwright Fellowship (JAF) is a key program as part of the ACIAR commitment to strengthen the technical capabilities of agricultural researchers in the Indo-Pacific region. The fellowship offers selected scholars formal postgraduate training either through a master degree by research or PhD at an Australian university under the Australia Awards program.

Scholars are selected from current ACIAR projects, demonstrating how their research contributes to development outcomes for their countries.

As part of the program, fellows also undertake a leadership and management learning journey so that they are ready to make the step from research into the next stages of their career.

Once they have completed their program they join our growing alumni of experts, mentors and thought leaders who contribute to impactful and effective agricultural research for development in their countries.


Men in laboratory looking at a computer monitor
Dr Dexter dela Cruz and Professor Peter Harrison at work in the laboratory. Image: Supplied

As his journey has progressed, Dr dela Cruz has become a leading researcher in coral reef restoration in an ongoing collaboration with his PhD supervisor, Professor Peter Harrison, founding Director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University.

The pair has led a succession of ACIAR-supported reef restoration projects, which have achieved worldwide recognition for their development of in vitro fertilisation techniques to raise coral larvae in aquaculture facilities before releasing them in the sea, in an effort to revive damaged reefs in the Philippines and on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

In recognition of his achievements, Dr dela Cruz was recently honoured as the Australian Alumni Excellence Awards Alumnus of the Year for his role in this research, which is seen as a vital development in global efforts to save coral reefs from the impacts of worsening marine heatwaves.

Man on stage holding an award with two presenters
Dr Dexter dela Cruz was named the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australian Alumni Excellence Awards Alumnus of the Year for his work on coral reef restoration. Image: ACIAR

Lasting legacy

‘The coral larval enhancement project, which is the in vitro fertilisation of corals, was supposed to be a short-term project, but its success means we are continuing to develop and deploy it 12 years later,’ said Dr dela Cruz.

He explained how it started as an idea of Professor Harrison’s that coral might be able to be cultured in the laboratory and then put back onto degraded reefs.

‘So my PhD was to design an experiment to test this. The first step was to determine when different coral species release sperm and egg in the field, then collect and culture this. 

‘We then released the cultured larvae onto degraded reef in the Philippines. After a few months, we observed new coral growing and, within a few years, the degraded reef was covered in new coral.

‘This was the first successful coral larval enhancement achieved anywhere in the world.’

Dr dela Cruz said it has been even more ‘interesting and exciting’ to observe the restoration of a full coral life cycle.

‘From microscopic sperm and egg, cultured to larval stage in the laboratory and settled onto degraded reef, we’ve then seen over three years the coral grow to juvenile and adult stages, releasing sperm and egg into the reef system.’

Further research has continued to produce new insights, such as the influence of increased population density.

‘When we repeated the same experiment, collecting second-generation egg and sperm from the corals we had resettled, we doubled the number of larvae that we released in the field, and we achieved double the number of growing corals and they matured in two years, not three.’

Having demonstrated how to revive coral populations, the researchers have now also turned their attention to the flow-on impacts on the whole reef habitat.

Two men sitting behind microscopes smiling with ocean in the background
Dr Dexter dela Cruz and Professor Peter Harrison at work in the laboratory. Image: Supplied

Ecosystem recovery

Man sitting on side of fishing raft setting out nets
Dr Dexter dela Cruz, whose pioneering work on coral in vitro fertilisation is helping to restore reefs damaged by marine heatwaves. Image: Supplied

‘Coral restoration is really about ecosystem restoration – helping to restore associated habitats, especially for fish, and we are seeing fish numbers increase on our rehabilitated reefs,’ explained Dr dela Cruz. 

In addition to the success of the research, he is also mindful of having achieved an ACIAR tenet – to apply research that benefits partner countries and also Australia.

‘We have been able to bring the results of our research in the Philippines to implementing the first large-scale coral restoration effort on the Great Barrier Reef.’

This program is being led by Southern Cross University and CSIRO, which is integrating additional scientific expertise, particularly molecular biology and genetics. Researchers in these fields are seeking to identify DNA that can confer to future coral generations a greater tolerance to heat stress.

‘This is the way forward and it is very encouraging to see other countries in the region, such as Vietnam, Maldives and Indonesia, now adopting our research and methodologies,’ said Dr dela Cruz.

‘This is a great outcome for the future health of coral reefs and the coastal communities that rely on them to ensure sustainable livelihoods.

‘Oh, and guess where the girl and her father found the magical luminous whale? In Australia.’

To learn more about ACIAR’s continued support for agricultural researchers through our programs, visit the ACIAR Capacity Building

ACIAR Project: ‘Restoring damaged coral reefs using mass coral larval reseeding’. (FIS/2014/063)