I was fortunate to grow up in southern Tasmania with parents who enjoyed the bush, the rivers and the sea. From about the age of three I was camping regularly in the sticks of the south-west wilderness. The coastline was always close to my heart – its sands, cliffs, blowholes and caves – and one of my favourite places was Cloudy Bay Lagoon on Bruny Island. Little did I know that by age 17 I’d be in a position to buy the land around it. I’d assumed a crystal-clear lagoon full of abalone, oysters and crayfish would be crown reserve but it was for sale as a rural block.

When I was 12 I borrowed my dad’s dingy to go fishing so I could raise some pocket money through selling any fish I caught to people at Blackmans Bay and Kingston. I ended up earning $6,000 in 10 weeks, so I poached until I was old enough to get a fishing licence. I would often take my friends out with me on the boat and when I saw how blown away they were by the wildlife and scenery, including the southern hemisphere’s tallest sea cliffs, I started thinking about catching people instead of fish.

In 1999 I started Bruny Island Cruises, which would eventually become Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. I personally took out 1,200 passengers that year, and made a $40,000 loss. The second year I made a bit, then the third year I was turning away more people than I could take. Today, still, 65 per cent of my passengers are Tasmanians fascinated by the environments on their doorstep. Awards for Tasmania’s top tourist attraction and excellence in sustainability has kept us busy, and our newest Seafood Seduction tour is going really well. We’ve tapped into commercial fishing quotas and the group size is limited to 10 to ensure we’re not harming the natural balance when we take our four abalone, crayfish or sea urchins.

I established the Tasmanian Coast Conservation Fund with the Parks & Wildlife Service and Wildcare in 2007, and within three years we had eradicated the feral cats responsible for killing upward of 50,000 seabirds a year on Tasman Island. Whereas my tour guests used to take photos of cats with dead birds in their mouths, they’re now photographing birds that haven’t been seen on Tasman for 30 years.

A few years later I started the Pennicott Foundation so I could pursue my passion for philanthropic work, with the guiding principle that not a single cent is spent on administration. We now have two foundations, which last year supported 236 projects ranging from beach clean-ups to school activity programs. I’m a believer in the idea that everyone can do a little to help, and would much rather spend my earnings on a project that could reap benefits for 10 more lifetimes than buy ‘stuff’. This week we collected seven bags of rubbish from one beach with the help of local schoolchildren, which doesn’t seem like much until you add it up over the year.

My wife Michaye and I were lucky to be able to bring up our children Mia, now 15, and Noah, 13, on Bruny without iPhones and the nearest neighbour about four kilometres away. I used to take the kids on the boat when I was working and vividly remember holding Mia over the side when she was just two weeks old as a dolphin came up beneath her feet and rolled on to its side. On another of my most memorable tours I freed a seal that had become trapped in a fishing net and then watched it circle the boat about five times, leaping in the air as if to say thank-you. I turned around to see half the passengers balling their eyes out. We now have 76 staff across Bruny Island, Tasman Island and Hobart, but I still get out regularly and would work for nothing just to have a couple of experiences like that a year.

In 2012 I had the idea of sailing an inflatable dingy round Australia as a way to raise awareness and funds to help eradicate polio, and when I told Michaye she just nodded “oh yes, sounds good”. I pulled out a little Jacaranda atlas – Australia didn’t look that big on there – and after a few drinks with my colleague Mick Souter we’d plotted a route on Google Earth. Three months later, our two 17-foot boats arrived – in hindsight they were too flat-bottomed for the journey – and we set off together with cameraman Zorro Gamarnik. There were some close calls, and the psychological challenge of keeping the team motivated on 18-hour days was intense, but I just couldn’t contemplate quitting. Being bashed by waves as high as telegraph poles for 26 hours across the Gulf of Carpentaria, about 160 miles offshore, was pretty hard yakka. In the Great Australian Bight I had to tie Zorro to the backseat so we wouldn’t lose him while flying fish kept hitting me in the head. When we came into Hobart 101 days later, having become the first people to circumnavigate Australia in an outboard-powered vessel, I was absolutely rooted. There were beautiful experiences on the trip too of course, especially the Kimberley, and the generosity of Australians stunned me; from a young lad on Kangaroo Island who ran down to see us so he could donate his $1.50 to the guys throwing $100 bills off the gas rigs. We raised around $300,000 and I ended up being named Tasmanian of the Year and National Geographic’s Traveller of the Year.

Time off is dangerous for me because I usually hatch more work plans, but I spend all my downtime relaxing, walking, camping and snorkelling with the family. I’ve walked all the major tracks in Tasmania at some point, as well as the Bruny Island coastline, but my next adventure is likely to be driven by work. One of the things I want to do more on is improving the bigger picture of plastics in our oceans.