Inspired by the natural beauty and rich coastal and marine biodiversity of KwaZulu-Natal, a group of conservationists, academics and fishermen undertook an expedition in 1947 to the remote northern part of the coast.

Although impressed by the diversity of marine life, they recognised the fragile nature of the ecosystems and the close interdependence between resources and coastal communities. Concerned about the future of marine conservation in South Africa, they conceived the establishment of a not-for-profit marine research organisation that would generate knowledge about marine and coastal resources and provide decision support for people and their leaders. As far as possible, funding would be self-generated through the operations of a public aquarium in the popular holiday town of Durban.

The South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) was therefore established in 1951. In 1959 the complex housing the Durban Centenary Aquarium, research laboratories and a fine library was officially opened, followed by the Dolphinarium complex in 1976.

In 2004, SAAMBR relocated to new premises at uShaka Marine World and continues to serve the people of KwaZulu-Natal, while playing an increasingly important role in marine scientific endeavour in South Africa and other areas of the Western Indian Ocean.