A Bangor 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 Ramsbottom, Lancashire, is now appearing in Work on the Wild Side – a ten-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.
“You have to make some big life changes but if I was to go back, I’d do it all over again. It’s such a meaningful way of life and I’m thrilled to be involved.
“I consider myself a guardian of this ecosystem. I gave my life up for it. You can have the best paid job in the world without being happy but I couldn’t be happier with my job.
“You can be parked on the water and the next minute see a huge shark launching out of the water with a seal in its mouth – it doesn’t get any more impressive than that.
“These sharks will literally rocket out of the water. That experience never gets old.”
The former Tottington High School pupil 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 Greek island of Zakynthos before embarking on her Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology at Bangor University.
“I was exposed early on to turtle conservation and by the time I got to Bangor, I had the diving under my belt and had spent a lot of time in the sea,” she said.
“It was my first choice uni. I still remember driving over the Menai Bridge and thinking this is one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.
“What I really enjoyed about the course in Bangor is that it gave me such a diverse skills set. On Anglesey, we had every type of shore habitat you could want as a marine biologist. We learned about kelp, the sand dunes at RAF Valley, how beaches evolve – all the foundation knowledge you’d need I got from Bangor.
“I still refer back to that course now, it has been instrumental.
“Obviously, marine biology is very popular in the UK and most costal 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 South Africa.
“People ask me if I went to volunteer but there’s no glamourous story. I was sat in an internet café 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 basis of her PhD on the spatial temporal ecology of white sharks.
The research, which also enabled her to complete a Masters’ degree through the University of Cape Town, centred on the use of acoustic and satellite tagging equipment on sharks to track their movements over a number of years.
Alison’s work has been featured in the highly-respected British scientific journal Functional Ecology as well as National Geographic, Discovery Channel shows and the BBC as well as a hugely-successful US cable TV programme called Air Jaws: The Hunted, which she co-hosted.
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.
“The series is about Brits in South Africa working in conversation. Most of them are women, which is particularly refreshing,” explained Alison.
“The CEO of the production company, Jannine Waddell, came down and we had a nice chat. I remember feeling a bit nervous because it was very much being followed around all day with the cameras. However, she was the most wonderful and ethical producer you could have imagined and took great care to tell the real story.”
Alison’s latest research is focused on the threats facing great white sharks from prey removal to over fishing and the impact on the species but in the midst of a global pandemic and with the temporary collapse of tourism, funding is an ongoing challenge.
“The movement data is critically important for the future management of the species,” she said.
“The government has no budget for white shark research, privately funded tagging work by blue NGO’s is therefore crucial in providing much needed data to them.
“The Save Our Seas Foundation sponsor a lot of our tagging equipment as does the marine science programme Acoustic Tracking Array Platform (ATAP).
“During the pandemic, the salary I relied upon for my work with the Trust has been slashed in half and I’ve had to do a lot of work externally to supplement it to be able to stay here.”
With a single satellite tag costing £1,000 and a basic acoustic tag coming in at £400, the need for continuous financial support is vital.
Alison now hosts regular shark talks on Airbnb’s online experiences platform to raise funds. Income is also generated through filming projects however future conservation work will continue to depend on wildlife tourism and the return to cage diving experiences.
“There are still people who have doubts that cage diving is ethical. Usually, when they do it they realise they had it all wrong as cage diving is incredibly important for conservation,” she said.
“That’s the benefit of having celebrities involved as they are able to convey that message to a larger audience. They have all been really crucial in the conservation side of things.”