Dr Tessa Hempson

Oceans Without Borders’ Programme Manager and Principal Scientist

Tessa grew up on a farm in the savannas and escarpment forests of South Africa, an environment that instilled in her a passion for ecology from a young age

After a year in Tasmania as a Rotary Scholar, she began her undergraduate studies via correspondence with the University of South Africa (UNISA) while travelling and working in scuba diving.

In 2003 Tessa returned to South Africa to complete her BSc in Botany and Zoology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), followed by a BSc Hons in Zoology, a field course in the Kruger National Park with the Organisation for Tropical Studies (OTS) and an MSc in Conservation Biology from the same university. Her study subjects ranged from the impact of elephants on savanna vegetation and bat community ecology to the effects of dynamite fishing on coral reefs in Tanzania.

After graduating, Tessa worked as a conservation manager for the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST), sailed the South American coast, volunteered as a researcher on the Aldabra Atoll World Heritage Site in the Seychelles and managed diving and marine logistics on Vamizi Island in the Quirimbas Archipelago of Mozambique. She then decided it was time to fulfil a lifetime aspiration of pursuing a PhD in coral reef ecology at James Cook University. Her thesis focused on the effects of coral reef habitat degradation on large predatory fish on the reef, with study sites in the Seychelles and the Keppel Island Group and Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

To supplement her PhD student stipend, Tessa worked as a helicopter underwater evacuation instructor, training soldiers and pilots for the Australian Defence Force. During this period, she also had the privilege of working on two natural history documentaries, one focusing on the interaction between bull sharks and crocodiles in South Africa’s estuaries, and the other a film about the spectacular reefs of Vamizi Island in Mozambique.

Since completing her doctorate, Tessa has embarked on a new chapter, this time in marine conservation and research in East Africa, as the Principal Scientist and Programme Officer of Oceans Without Borders, a project partnership between &Beyond and Africa Foundation dedicated to marine conservation and community development in East Africa.

She is also an Adjunct Researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia, where she completed her PhD, and continues to work with many of the world’s leading marine scientists on the most pressing issues facing our oceans.

Recognising the importance of working at multiple scales and the need for effective inter-sectoral partnerships, Oceans Without Borders offers a unique platform for bringing together diverse stakeholders to address the complex inter-related challenges facing marine conservation.

At a local scale, Tessa’s work in East Africa focuses on the inseparable links between coastal communities and the marine resources on which they depend. At a global scale she endeavours to raise awareness around marine conservation issues, highlighting that many of the threats facing our oceans are driven by consumer and political choices in the developed world, and that each of us can take positive steps in our daily lives to secure a bright future for the oceans on which we ultimately all depend.


Career Summary:

  • 2018 – present: Oceans Without Borders’ Programme Manager & Principal Scientist
  • 2016 – 2017: Orpheus Island Research Station Teaching and Support Staff, James Cook University, Australia
  • 2014 – 2017: Helicopter Underwater Egress Training Instructor and Safety Diver Accredited by the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation, Careflight and ERGT Australia
  • 2011 – 2012: Marine Activities & Logistics Manager and Scuba Diving Instructor, Vamizi Island Lodge, Mozambique
  • 2011 – Researcher & Scuba Instructor, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles Island Foundation
  • 2009 – 2010: Conservation Manager, Sustainable Seas Trust, South Africa
  • 1999 – 2001: Scuba Instructor and Coastal Skipper, Sodwana Bay, South Africa, and Dahab, Egypt

Key Achievements:

  • PhD in Marine Biology from James Cook University
  • Number of articles published in peer reviewed publications
  • Appeared as presenter in two nature documentaries
  • Recipient of numerous bursaries and academic awards
  • Presented at various international scientific conferences, including two International Coral Reef Symposiums

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