View of Tjärnö from the sea towards old red houses.
The Tjärnö laboratory in 1973. On the right is the "Röda längan" with course labs and lecture hall. In the middle of the picture sits Pensionat Furuhöjd. The former station boat Virgo is moored at the jetty.

Tjärnö turns 60 – from guesthouse to world-class research station


This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first summer course in marine biology at Tjärnö. The tranquil Tjärnö Bay was suddenly transformed when some energetic students from Gothenburg moved into the old abandoned guesthouse. Today, Tjärnö Marine Laboratory is a workplace for nearly 70 people, with world-class research and teaching.

In the early 1960s, the University of Gothenburg held its marine field courses on board an old schooner that trundled along the Bohus coast. But before the summer of 1963 the boat had burned down, and  instead the course was held at the closed guesthouse "Pensionat Furuhöjd" on Tjärnö. The area was considered perfect for marine biological studies, with the deep Kosterfjord just outside, and the local fishermen had a good knowledge of where corals, sponges, and other for Sweden exotic sea animals could be found.

When the activities were made permanent a few years later, Lars Afzelius became the station's first manager. In an interview in GU Journalen in 1999, he tells about the first years at Pensionat Furuhöjd: "Everything took place in one and the same room. When it was time to eat, we carried the microscopes out and brought them back in afterwards. Animals and seaweed that we fetched from the sea were placed in tubs in the garden. And at night, the fox came and ate all the animals.”

Students crouch around pods of collected sea creatures outdoors.
During the first years, the students examined the collected seaweed and animals outdoors in Pensionat Furuhöjd's garden.

World-class research and teaching

During its 60 years, Tjärnö has developed from being a temporary field station for courses in marine biology, to a successful year-round workplace in marine research and teaching for nearly 70 people.

The station currently conducts basic research in areas such as, for example, evolution and chemical ecology, but also more applied projects such as aquaculture, as well as restoration of eelgrass and coral reefs. Many of the researchers at Tjärnö have an international background, and some visit Tjärnö for shorter or longer periods during their careers.

"We are well-known throughout the world and can compete with established research stations such as Woods Hole in the USA. It's not only due to our strategic location, but also to the world-leading research we do here", says Kerstin Johannesson, professor at the Department of Marine Sciences and current station manager of the Tjärnö laboratory.

Four men on board a boat.
Lars Afzelius (on the left) aboard Tjärnö Marine Laboratory´s former research vessel "Virgo". During Afzelius' leadership, the station expanded, and he laid the foundation for today's modern research station.

The researchers also contribute to raising the level of teaching at the station, Kerstin Johannesson believes. In addition to the University of Gothenburg, other universities from Sweden, and the rest of Europe, also regularly book marine biology courses at Tjärnö.

Marine national park and sustainable fishing

When asked what significance the Tjärnö Laboratory has had for the care and management of the sea, Kerstin Johannesson particularly highlights the establishment of the Kosterhavets National Park in 2009, where the station contributed with knowledge of the surrounding area, as well as mapping of habitats and species. Another example is the development of a more sustainable shrimp fishery in Kosterfjorden.

"The local fishermen trusted us, and we were able to conduct the dialogue that the fisheries authorities were unable to do. We organised courses for each other: The fishermen studied marine biology with us at Tjärnö, and we in turn went out on their boats to learn more about fishing. This co-operation eventually led to the rules that protect particularly valuable sea floor areas in the Kosterfjord," says Kerstin Johannesson.

Young people on board a ship.
Right from the start, Tjärnö Marine Laboratory has kept its doors open to those who want to know more about the sea. Here are students from Birger Sjöberg high school taking a closer look at seaweed and animals from the ocean floor.
Photo: Martin Larsvik

Important to share knowledge about the sea

An important part of activities at Tjärnö have always been aimed at the public and schools. Lars Afzelius understood how important it was for the University to open up to society, and laid the foundation for Tjärnö's outreach activities with aquariums, school visits, and popular science lectures; he also invited politicians and authorities to various collaborations.

The legacy of Lars Afzelius still lives on today at Tjärnö. The cooperation with the local business community and schools is well developed, and every year thousands of visitors are guided by the station's informants and researchers at ocean and beach excursions, and in the Tjärnö Aquarium, which is Sweden's most species-rich aquarium.

"We want to be an arena for research and education at the University of Gothenburg. People want to know about the sea, and we are happy to share our knowledge", says Martin Larsvik, responsible for outreach activities at Tjärnö Marine Laboratory.

Text: Susanne Liljenström & Annika Wall

People sit on a beach and hold many nationalities flags in their hands.
The Tjärnö marine Laboratory is an international workplace. At least 17 different nationalities were counted in the autumn of 2022.
Photo: Susanne Liljenström
Historical years
  • In 1963, the first course in marine biology is held in Furuhöjd's guest house, also called "Panget".
  • In 1965, the "Tjärnö Marine Zoological Station" was established, to be run jointly by the universities of Gothenburg and Stockholm.
  • In 1969, a first course building with a lecture hall and course laboratories was built. Teaching moves from "Panget" but the students still live there.
  • In 1974 the station changed its name to "Tjärnö Marine Biological Laboratory".
  • In 1982, a large extension was made with a barracks, dining hall, boathouses and staff quarters. The Swedish king inaugurates.
  • In 1983, the old shrimp trawler Virgo was replaced by today's research vessel Nereus.
  • In 1985, the first version of Tjärnö Aquarium is built and the outreach-activities develops.
  • In 1995, Pensionat Furuhöjd was demolished and the White House with room for 48 guests was built in its place.
  • In 1996, the Tjärnö laboratory was designated a regional knowledge center, a so-called Center of Excellence with support from the EU.
  • In 1999, Lars Afzelius leaves the position as director. He was succeeded the following year by Kerstin Johannesson.
  • In 2004, the Tjärnö laboratory becomes one of the first units at the University of Gothenburg to be environmentally certified according to ISO 14001 and EMAS.
  • In 2008, the Tjärnö laboratory becomes a unit at the Sven Lovén Center for Marine Sciences. Stockholm University leaves the joint partnership.
  • In 2018, the Department of Marine Sciences takes over the operation of the station, and the following year the name is changed to the "Tjärnö Marine Laboratory".