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What do spiders and pack ice have in common?

Get to know Dr Chris Gillies

Chris Gillies is most at home when he’s underwater. His career as a Marine Biologist has given him the good fortune to experience many life changing moments. He’s dived in Antarctica, come face-to-face with a humpback whale, been interrogated by a group of penguins, and even had a spider named after him.

As a child Chris had a dream to be a pilot, but at 6’ 4” he was too tall for the defence force so he looked to his love of the great outdoors, seeking a career that would allow him to be active working in nature. Although he didn’t study biology at school, he enrolled to do an environmental science degree at University of Technology, in Sydney – and he was hooked from day one.

He majored in freshwater science/ecology, which took him to Antarctica to do his PhD with the Australian Antarctic division on shallow water systems. “A lot of the work for my PhD was almost pioneering – we know so little about the creatures that live on the seafloor surrounding Antarctica, even basic things like what they eat. Conducting science in such an extreme environment is obviously challenging but that’s what makes it so rewarding”, recalls Chris.

Here are some of Chris’s career highlights

  • Antarctic fieldwork – diving in Antarctica in freezing water temperatures and living on a research station for six months.
  • Diving with a juvenile Humpback Whale on Lady Elliot island, Great Barrier Reef while surrounded by more than a hundred Manta Rays whose mating behaviour he was studying.
  • Having a species named after him – Opopaea gilliesi – a goblin spider from Arnhem Land, NT.
  • Being ‘interrogated’ by a group of Adelie Penguins while working on pack ice two kilometres  from the Antarctic coast. Chris and a colleague were taking ice core samples when they noticed a group of penguins in the distance. The group started moving towards them, waddling and sliding on their bellies. After a journey which took about 10 minutes, the penguins came right up to them. They all stood up, the lead penguin looked to his mate, and they virtually shrugged their shoulders then turned around and went back to where they came from. In Antarctica humans are the odd ones out but Chris says his colleagues obviously weren’t interesting enough for them to stay.

Chris currently heads up our Australian Marine Team. His work includes undertaking an Australian first project to re-establish shellfish reefs in Port Phillip Bay.

He is particularly focused on bringing people and nature together in harmony. “The way to effect good conservation on the ground is to learn about what’s important to people. If you want to put in a marine park or protect a piece of land or restore a shellfish reef you need to convince people that it’s a good idea – looking for win-win situations for people and nature and be able to communicate why this will benefit them – if you get them excited big things can happen.”

He has always been a big advocate for encouraging citizen science projects, which help people to become involved in science, because science doesn’t need to be exclusively for professionals.

“I’ve seen people gain a lot of personal benefit from getting involved in citizen science projects. It could be fieldwork, gathering data, sharing stories or planting a tree. Without people, we couldn’t achieve many of the results we’re achieving both here and around the world. Nature really does need people.”

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