Wales On Sunday
SHARK EXPERT DIVES INTO TV ROLE
ABANGOR University graduate whose day job gets her up close and personal with the ocean’s most terrifying predator is featuring in a new Channel 4 marine wildlife series.
Marine biologist Alison Towner has become a global expert in the ecology of great white sharks following almost 15 years of research in South Africa.
The 35-year-old, who grew up in Lancashire, is now appearing in Work on the Wild Side – a 10-part series following vets and volunteers from across the UK who gave up their day jobs to rescue, rehabilitate and release some of the world’s most endangered animals in South Africa.
Alison, who was inspired to become a marine wildlife expert after reading her late father’s novel about salmon and their epic migration at the age of 11, completed a degree in marine biology at Bangor University in 2006.
She then worked as a scuba diving instructor in the Red Sea before taking up a placement with a shark cage diving company two hours east of Cape Town, South Africa.
The role has seen her accompany a host of celebrities including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, TV presenter Philip Schofield, rugby star Ben Foden and most recently MasterChef’s Greg Wallace cage-diving with the world’s most feared marine predator – often diving by their side as a guide.
It has also led to her involvement with the company’s non-profit organisation Dyer Island Conservation Trust in Gansbaai – the “white shark capital of the world” – where she is now head marine biologist.
Not only has Alison’s research changed scientific understanding of the behaviour and movement of great white sharks in the area, particularly against the influence of killer whales, it also continues to expose the ongoing threats and risks faced by the species.
Alison, who is expecting her first child, a baby boy due in September, allowed camera crews to follow her team’s efforts conducting research, rehabilitating ocean life and protecting endangered species such as the African penguin over the course of a month.
Viewers will see Alison perform a necropsy on a shark and release a group of penguins following their successful rehabilitation – just two of the day-to-day activities of her dream job.
“Every day I go out I still pinch myself. My passion is unwavering,” she said.
Alison became fascinated with sharks at a young age – a passion which led her to achieving her PADI junior open water scuba diver qualification by the age of 11.
Her father Eric Towner, a former Manchester Evening News journalist who she lost when she was five, used to read her shark stories and had also lived in South Africa during the 1970s.
Sharing his passion for marine life, Alison spent a summer as a dive master at a diving centre on the G re ek island of Zakynth o s before embarking on her
Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology at Bangor University.
“I still refer back to that course now, it has been instrumental. “Obviously, marine biology is very popular in the UK and most coastal universities offer the course. Bangor had a great reputation and subsequently I’ve had so many volunteers and interns coming over to join the programme with me who are Bangor students or graduates.”
After her degree, Alison spent a year as a diving instructor at the Red Sea, off the coast of Jordan, before taking up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with Marine Dynamics Shark Tours – an ecotourism and conservation cage-diving enterprise in Sou th Africa.
“People ask me if I went to volunteer but there’s no glamorous story. I was sat in an internet cafe in Jordan and was browsing through a website on a cage-diving company in South Africa when I noticed there were no female staff whatsoever and thought I was qualified enough to send a very forward email saying they needed a girl among the team!”
The gamble paid off and a month later Alison found herself the company’s only female crew member.
Over the course of the next 15 years, Alison amassed some of the most extensive data sets on the population dynamics, environmental influences and movement ecology of great white sharks in the world which has since formed the bwwasis of her PhD on the spatial temporal ecology of white sharks.
The new Channel 4 series, which runs weekly on Saturdays from March to May, was produced by Waddell Media, before the pandemic.
Each half-hour programme takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster as the wildlife heroes open up about their passion to save animals in danger of extinction including the “Big Five” (African lions, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants and Cape buffalo) on the Northern Plains.