Sustainable success

16 Jul 2012

Author: Kristie Kellahan

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Australian innovation and can-do efficiency is restoring the world’s ocean reefs and creating sustainable marine environments.
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Almost from the day he was born, David Lennon, the Director of Sustainable Oceans International Pty Ltd (SOI), was taught to love the water by parents who were ‘obsessed’ with sailing and the sea.

“Ever since I can remember, whenever I looked at water or the sea, I wanted to be under it,” Lennon says.

His passion for water and the myriad marine life forms that dwell under the surface have propelled Lennon on an impressive career path and fascinating life journey. SOI, a boutique consultancy based in Melbourne with projects being undertaken from the Middle East to Asia and beyond, is gaining global recognition for its pioneering work advancing sustainable design below the waterline and for the restoration of marine habitats around the world.

Lennon says Australians are natural world leaders in business and science. “If you are a successful manager in Australia you will do well overseas.”

From constructing reefs in Bahrain to advising coastal resorts on social and environmental responsibility, SOI is passionate about conserving the delicate marine ecosystem that is essential for the air we breathe and food we eat.

“Constructed or artificial reefs are one of the greatest investments a company or government can make,” Lennon says. “Unlike investments in roads, buildings, sporting facilities, playgrounds or parks, these reefs require no ongoing maintenance budget. Once deployed that is the end of funding they require. They continue to produce for the local community for hundreds of years with no annual budget. I don’t know of any other man-made asset that provides a return like this.”

The early clues to Lennon’s success are not difficult to trace. Endless childhood days were spent sailing and snorkelling in the Saudi Arabian coastal town where his academic parents worked at the local university. From his mother and father Lennon also gained a deep respect for animals and the natural environment. Born in the UK, Lennon lived in Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and the US before moving to Australia in 1994 and becoming a proud Australian citizen.

Learning to scuba dive at age 16, Lennon spent the next few years volunteering at the local dive centre, discovering along the way that he loved teaching people. He says he was “gung-ho” on becoming a commercial diver and at age 20 successfully completed a six-month advanced program in the US. Lennon says his commercial diving qualification has been a boost to his career as a marine scientist. “It taught me how to work hard in tough conditions and get the job done,” he says.

Encouraged by his parents to continue his education, Lennon completed a Bachelor of Science in Oceanographic Technology from Florida Institute of Technology in the US.

“A standout trait of Australians is our ability to get in and get the job done with minimal fuss.”

It was while studying the impact of oil production in the Arabian Gulf in 1991 that Lennon first began to build artificial reefs, or constructed reefs, as they are now widely known. Used for impact mitigation and reef restoration, constructed reefs maintain biodiversity and encourage local fish stocks.

“I was working at a large research institute in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and one of my colleagues, Eric Charbonnel, was studying fish assemblages around oil rigs, which are basically artificial reefs,” Lennon says. “He introduced the concept to me of building a home for fish and I immediately fell in love with the idea.”

Permits were not required to construct reefs in Saudi Arabia at that time, so Lennon and his colleague would borrow a work truck on the weekend, drive to a local tip and load it up with ‘all kinds of junk’.

“Scrap pipes, junk, broken toilets, you name it,” Lennon says. “We’d then drive to the company beach and throw the stuff in and watch the fish take up residence. It’s like building a house for a possum or other wild animal. There is something rewarding about it, I was hooked and that was the start of my love for constructing homes for fish and other marine critters.”

Noting the way marine life chooses and utilises different structures and groupings of reef materials, Lennon’s ambitions to enhance biodiversity in the ocean grew further.

“Eric taught me back then that building a reef is an art and science and it’s very true,” Lennon says. “The art aspect of reef building is something that is hard to teach; it’s just like planting a garden. Anyone can stick some bushes and trees in the ground but only a few are famous for creating truly amazing and effective gardens that work well with the local species and climate. No two architects will come up with the same design for a building, and one design can be far more effective than the other; it’s the same with us underwater architects.”

Lennon’s passion for preserving and repairing the underwater environment had found its vehicle of expression.

“We are losing huge volumes of reef habitat due to development and even storm events; global warming is killing reef-building coral at an alarming rate,” Lennon says. “We are also consuming huge amounts of seafood and overfishing many natural reefs. Reefs can be constructed to replace natural reefs that have been lost, to increase fish production, take fishing pressure or diving pressure off natural reefs, provide increased diving sites or recreational fishing sites, or to protect shorelines from eroding or even to create waves for surfing.”

Lennon says he takes his cues from nature, harnessing the concept of biomimicry when building reefs. “I spend a lot of time studying the local reefs to gain insights as to how they function and what aspects of them are favoured by different organisms,” he says.

In March, SOI deployed Bahrain’s first constructed reef, an intricate structure totalling 274 reef units ranging in height from 0.4 metres to 3 metres. It was the first reef in what will be a ten-reef, two-year project.

“Bahrain is the first Gulf country to initiate a serious attempt to replace essential reef habitat that has been lost due to dredging and reclamation,” Lennon says. “The Gulf countries are facing a serious problem due to the amount of essential fish habitat they have reclaimed for development.”

The Bahrain project is being run by Reef Arabia, SOI’s project partner, a company they helped establish to manufacture constructed reef units for the Arabian Gulf. The project is also the first to use custom reef units designed by Lennon that incorporate iconic Arabian architecture.

Innovation and creativity propel the work forward. SOI recently filed a patent for a new manufacturing technology that will allow the reef architects to use a computer to generate complex reef units. “We had enough funds in 2011 to make eight prototypes in Europe and will ship them to Australia or the Middle East to test this year,” Lennon says. “This is very exciting and could revolutionise reef design. We are also researching how new technology can help us monitor the effectiveness of constructed reefs and health of reefs.”

Dr Peter Longdill, an environmental project manager for international consultancy COWI, works on coastal and marine projects in Qatar. Recently he engaged SOI to conduct a detailed study of corals which were to be potentially impacted by port development in Qatar.

“SOI provided a field survey of the coral area and also a detailed plan together with specifications of how to successfully relocate those corals and their associated habitat,” Dr Longdill says.

Dr Longdill, who describes Lennon as “motivated, passionate and reliable”, says SOI has achieved its remarkable success by identifying a niche where they have strong technical capabilities supported by a passionate desire to preserve marine habitats. “By aligning these passions and skills and successfully marketing these to clients in need of these solutions, SOI has managed to achieve a high level of success.”

Lennon says in many ways Australians are natural world leaders in business and science. “In Australia we have huge production costs, small population, high taxes and high transport costs, so to be successful and profitable in Australia is a major success,” he says. “If you are a successful manager in Australia you will do well overseas.”

In 1993, when Lennon decided to pursue postgraduate study in order to take his career to the next level, he chose Griffith University in Brisbane for his Master of Science in Environmental Management.

Today he says Australian team members are an asset. “A standout trait of Australians, if I may say so, I have found is our ability to get in and get the job done with minimal fuss,” he says. “Working in the Middle East requires a flexible nature and an ability to be constantly adapting to change because projects never go to plan. We adapt well.”

Whether by way of the traits of his adopted homeland, or some unique drive within, Lennon has found a purpose and cause that he can truly contribute to. He says he sat down three years ago and wrote a list of things that made him happy, in order to identify the moments in work and life that gave him the greatest satisfaction.

“It came down to simply ‘turning negatives into positives’,” he says. “I realised that no matter what career I was doing, I was always happiest when I had the chance to improve something, whether it be a process or product or service. Combine that with my natural love for the sea and I’m not holding back on focusing on the mitigation and restoration of marine habitats that I love so much. My greatest challenge is to get the rest of the world (or at least a tiny part of it) to give it a go.”

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