Our paths crossed when Lee was looking for a more eco friendly short for his ocean conservation work in the Philippines. As the lead scientist for a NGO out there, a keen photographer and a true gent, it seemed only right that we collaborate.

What inspired you to get involved in marine ecology? Tell us a little bit about your personal journey and what lead you into the sea.

I grew up on a farm by the ocean, just South of Sydney in Australia. Evenings and weekends as a kid were spent at the beach rock pooling, fishing or surfing. So from a very young age I had a hands on relationship with the ocean, I guess I never really grew up from being that inquisitive kid. My degrees in Ecology and Zoology led me to James Cook University, which has the Great Barrier Reef on its doorstep and to Norway, where I was mapping and monitoring it’s deep sea cold water coral reefs.

You are currently based in Malapascua, Philippines, can you tell us about your current project working with coral?

I’m currently working as Lead Scientist for People and The Sea. The project was set up after Yolanda, a huge typhoon came through and demolished much of the reef around Malapascua in 2013. We are monitoring the recovery, (or lack there of) of the coral reef around the island, and potential impacts of tourism in the area.

We are also involved in an artificial reef project that is actively regenerating a section of reef showing lack of natural recovery. This is also a socio-economic boost for local businesses.

Lee prepares for a coral garden dive in a pair of Riz Braunton Polka Dot swim shorts

Apart from living the dream in shorts, what's a typical day like for you?

I start the day at the office at about 6.30am, getting dive and monitoring equipment prepped for the day.

Breakfast and mandatory coffee are quickly devoured before we’ll check over our dive sites, weather and survey notes and head off about 7.30am. The mornings normally consist of two dives, with intermission lectures and briefs on our surface interval to go over the previous dive and what we will learn next. Once we’re back on base and the dive kits are unloaded, washed and broken down we’ll sit down for lunch. Then comes data input and analysis. This can take a few hours. Afternoons are also time for volunteer lectures and guided learning sessions.

Later in the afternoon is my chance to work on other projects, such as coral restoration projects on the island, Crown-of-thorns monitoring and networking with Universities. Once per week we also undertake a pre sunset beach clean, which is sponsored by a different local business each time.

Days are very busy when working in conservation. It’s lucky that people working in this field are very passionate, and hardworking! It’s an inspiring work place with the right team.

How do you see your role in its conservation?

There are many ways to conserve the ocean. From education, lifestyle changes and direct impact reduction. I love teaching, and in the future I would really love to utilise my expertise in the underwater world to empower the next generation of marine ecologists. This is a pretty specialised field, that we certainly need more education into.

In my (rare) spare time, I work alongside Making Roots, a sustainability think space. Doing the practical side of Marine Ecology is so important, but also raising general awareness about our everyday impacts on the ocean is a great way to mitigate for those things I deal with underwater. Through Making Roots I hope to create some practical content to guide non-marine ecologists about their relationship with the environment.

Lee snorkelling for sea urchins in a protected coral garden

Playing the ‘favourite game', do you have a favourite piece of ocean?

It’s very hard to pick a favourite! The Coral Triangle in SE Asia is incredibly special though. Three quarters of the world’s coral species are found in the Coral Triangle. It has the highest coral diversity in the world and is one of the biggest biodiversity hotspots on the planet. Within the triangle, Komodo and the Lembeh strait off Sulawasi in particular are just incredible. Lembeh is the muck-diving mecca, home the the amazing mimic octopus and so many weird and unique and amazing critters. Komodo is the quintessential tropical diving experience where you can encounter everything from a plethora or colourful nudibranchs, tiny flamboyant cuttlefish, loads of healthy sea turtles and close encounters with inquisitive mantra rays.

Your love for underwater photography is a great way to educate and inspire; do you have plans to work with this more?

Photography is a real passion of mine. A perfect dive for me involves being able to take some shots of the beautiful creatures you find at home on the reef. It started out as a hobby to have keep sakes of the amazing diving I’ve had the pleasure to experience but it has grown into an educational tool for conservation.

Not everybody can dive, but photography is a really incredible way to bring the marine world right into people’s living rooms or smart phones. Inspiring people and sharing that passion is an integral aspect of conservation - people conserve what they love.

A seahorse enjoys their underwater playground

Do you have any advice for people who are wanting to make more conscious travel choices? (Especially re ’sustainable tourism’)

Responsible travel is extremely important, especially as the availability of travel has increased. Tourism has an incredible power to contribute to sustainable development, and the best way you can help with this is to do your research to make sure your dollar is going towards sustainable and ecotourism programs.

Make sure you research activities you may want to do before going. Paying to visit marine parks and national parks, ensures the economic stability of these conservation zones. There are way too many dive centres and tourism operators who will anchor on coral reefs, feed fish, chase down sea turtles or manta rays or whale sharks and also allow tourists to ride them. Reef walking is also somehow still a thing in SE Asia and even the damage from amateur photographers and the operators who are happy to harass animals and break corals to help get their elusive shots, are all compiling the destruction of reef systems. By researching before you partake in tourist activities, you are most likely to invest your time and money into something that isn’t damaging the environment.

What top tips do you have for people wanting to help protect the future of our oceans? Do you feel that we all need to connect more with the sea to in turn protect it?

Everything is connected to the ocean, and the oceans are a lifeline for the planet. Being inspired and connected to the ocean, and nature as a whole is absolutely key to helping to want to protect it!

A big tip for everyday people wanting to protect the oceans is to reduce consumption in our everyday lives and to buy quality, ethical products, in particular reducing the consumption of single use plastics.

Buying sustainably sourced seafood is also huge, unfortunately it is also more easily said than done, Check your local fisheries research institutes for your areas most sustainable choices.

Volunteering is also an incredible way to have a really hands on impact on the oceans. I teach volunteers who generally know nothing about underwater biodiversity into scientific survey teams and there is an incredible value in both volunteer effort as well as the impact this learning curve has on the participant’s lifestyle beyond their volunteer experience.

Lee in conversation with other marine conservation volunteers

What are your plans for the future?

The future is very open for me right now. I am continuing to build Making Roots. We want to create a knowledge hub based on the latest scientific findings. We want to remove the emotive, extreme side of sustainability, conservation and green living to promote a way of thinking that is practical for everyday people, good for the economy and protects the environment.

Short term, I’m coming to London for some much needed rest and relaxation. Long term I have some environmental consultancy positions planned, in both capacity building and impact assessments, but also I am leaning towards jumping into some novel research roles.

Lee Hankinson onboard his conservation boat wearing Riz Braunton tailored swim shorts

Lee wears our Braunton all-day short in polka dot