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Science’s ‘action man’ is proving why nature needs people

Dr Chris Gillies has a passion for underwater and being active – and during his time as a Marine Biologist he’s had more life changing experiences than most of us will experience in a lifetime! He’s dived in Antarctica; come face to face with a humpback whale, been interrogated by a group of Adeli penguins and even had a spider named after him!

When Chris was in school he wanted to be a pilot but at 6’4 he was too tall for the defence force. He knew he wanted a career that would allow him to be active, and his other great love was the great outdoors… So, although he hadn’t studied biology at school he decided to follow his heart and enrolled to do an environmental science degree at University of Technology, Sydney. His punt paid off, and he was hooked from day one!

Chris’s major in freshwater science/ecology eventually lead 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. Conducing science in such an extreme environment is obviously challenging but that’s what makes it so rewarding”. 

Career highlights:

  • Antarctic fieldwork – diving in Antarctica in water temperatures below freezing and living on a research station for six months
  • Diving with a juvenile humpback whale on Lady Elliot island, Great Barrier Reef whilst studying manta ray mating behavior. There were also over 100 manta rays in the water at the time – they were surrounded
  • Having a species named after him – a goblin spider (found in southern Arnhem Land, NT) Opopaea gilliesi Baehr – “This species is named for Chris Gillies of the Earthwatch Institute Australia, recognising his field assistance during the Wonglara BushBlitz.”
  • Being ‘interrogated’ by a group of Adelie penguins whilst working on pack ice 2km 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, you’re the exhibit – but Chris and his mate 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 be able to communicate why this will benefit them – if you get them onside big things can happen!

He has always been a big advocate for encouraging citizen science projects to allow 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 field work, 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.”