Marine biologist Alison Towner on growing up in Lancashire

PUBLISHED: 10:53 04 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:53 04 October 2019

Alison Towner

Alison Towner

not Archant

A woman from Ramsbottom is sticking up for great white sharks and calling for global action to protect them, writes Paul Mackenzie

Dolphins off the South African coast (c) Marine DynamicsDolphins off the South African coast (c) Marine Dynamics

As a girl growing up in Ramsbottom, the River Irwell was the nearest place Alison Towner could spot life under the water. There might not have been much in there that was very exotic but that didn't stop her developing a passion for marine life.

She now lives close to the southern tip of Africa and leads diving trips and tours to see some of the world's most fabulous aquatic life. Her home is at Gansbaai, a coastal town two hours from Cape Town, and the oceans on her doorstep provide a habitat for penguins, Southern right whales, Cape fur seals, dolphins, skates, rays as well as an abundance of birdlife and her favourites: great white sharks. She doesn't believe there's another place on earth that can offer such diversity so close to shore.

Although her father died when she was just five, she says he is the reason she developed a love for the natural world.

'My love of nature is completely from him, she says. 'He was a fisherman and he wrote a novel about the migration of salmon. His love of the sea and of animals made a huge impression on me. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a marine biologist.'

African penguinsAfrican penguins

She retains a recognisable Lancashire twang but every now and again she lets slip a very South African clipped vowel.

After completing her marine biology degree at the University of Wales she spent time as a scuba diving instructor on the Red Sea before moving to South Africa to be a marine biologist for the Dyer Island Conservation Trust.

She now works as a white shark biologist for Marine Dynamics and is involved in studying the great whites about which she is so passionate.

'The great whites have a bad reputation but they are magnificent and complex creatures,' she says. 'They each have their own personality and place in the social hierarchy. We recently had a five metre female circling our eight metre boat and it was quite something to see, I'm in awe of these animals.

The storm water net in Gansbaai Harbour (c) Hennie Otto, Marine DynamicsThe storm water net in Gansbaai Harbour (c) Hennie Otto, Marine Dynamics

'We fit external tags close to the dorsal fin which usually stay in place for about a year or two and allow us to track their movements and establish patterns of behaviour. In the time I have been here I have seen some big changes as regards these animals.'

A population estimate in 2013 placed the numbers of great whites in South Africa at between 800 and 1,000, but Alison says it's very difficult to know exact figures. Whatever the number, it's not very big.

'They can migrate thousands of miles and return to the same places, like homing pigeons, but they are incredibly threatened - mostly by fishing. South Africa was the first nation on earth to have legislation to fully protect great whites. But it's all very well having the legislation, it has to be enforced and monitored, but it isn't always. And the sharks need that level of support in all international waters, not just here. There are serious red flag conservation issues around great whites.

A great white shark off the South African coast (c) Hennie Otto, Marine DynamicsA great white shark off the South African coast (c) Hennie Otto, Marine Dynamics

'The film Jaws was the worst thing that could have happened to them,' she adds. 'After that, everyone wanted to catch one and they were being fished to extinction. We had two killer whales here recently who ripped great whites open, ate their livers and swam on. Their image in the public conscience isn't nearly so bad, and I think that's partly because of the film Free Willy.

'There needs to be a serious attitude shift at government level about the importance of our oceans. The world can't keep ignoring the issue and we need real commitments to do something about it.

'I feel sorry for future generations who are being dealt a bad hand because of ignorance. There is a lack of will power at the moment to make a real difference and we need a different mindset to bring about change. Some of the children we work with here are among the poorest people anywhere but they learn from living here that it is important to live holistically. And that's the attitude we need world leaders to adopt.'

Alison was recently filmed for a Channel Four programme Work on the Wild Side to be screened later this year about Brits forging careers abroad. She has also taken Bill Gates, Philip Schofield, Ben Fogle and South African cricketer Faf du Plessis on trips to spot wildlife or to dive in a shark cage. 'Faf couldn't believe I was from Ramsbottom - he used to play for the cricket team there, so we were able to reminisce together.'

And she likes to reminisce. 'I go to Holcombe Hill every time I'm home. You can just see Manchester in the distance but it's a lovely rural Lancashire landscape.

'And we might moan a bit, but I think Lancashire people are the friendliest people on the planet. When I go back to Ramsbottom Market with my mum I always get 'Alright love, how are the sharks?' I'm very proud to tell people I'm from Lancashire and I do miss it very much.' 

Alison will be speaking about marine wildlife in South Africa at the Wildlife & Safari Travel Show in Harrogate on October 12-13th,

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