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How a Childhood Swimming with Dolphins Led This Conservationist to Her Mission

Alison Teal is determined to protect dolphins and the ocean they call home.

Alison Teal swimming with dolphins in Hawaii

Alison Teal never rode in a stroller or squealed in a bucket swing on the playground. Born to an adventure-loving yogi mom and a National Geographic photographer dad, she was already exploring the world as an infant. She saw the view from atop a peak in Peru at just two months old, nestled in a carrier on her mom’s back. The trio traveled the globe staying not at five-star resorts but in a six-foot-wide tent. From frigid mountaintops to steaming jungles, they immersed themselves in local nature and culture. 

Alison and her parentsBetween journeys they would return home to a secluded part of the Big Island of Hawaii, where they built a sustainable, solar-powered Robinson Crusoe-style oceanfront retreat center that Alison calls her “home sweet treehouse.” Her front yard was the ocean, and her pals were dolphins. Their way of playing catch? Alison would dive into the water and release a sea leaf. A dolphin would catch it on its nose or fin and toss it to the next player.

Over the years, the dolphins grew to trust Alison. They looked for her and approached her in the water. She let them take the lead in their interactions. Though she never gave them names to avoid humanizing them, Alison grew protective of the pod.

After studying anthropology and archaeology at UC Berkeley and then graduating from USC film school, she continued her world travels, her pink surfboard, made from recycled coffee cups, always at hand as she filmed meeting the locals and learning about new lands. Time magazine dubbed her “the female Indiana Jones.”

Her adventurous childhood and survival skills landed her a spot on the grueling reality show Naked and Afraid, in which she and a co-contestant had to live on an inhospitable Maldives island for 21 days. Alison’s deep knowledge of how to live in a tropical wilderness saved the pair, but what jarred her was the amount of trash that washed up on the shore.

“After that, I couldn’t ignore our plastic problem,” says Alison. “I shifted my quest to protecting our greatest resource, the ocean.”

She didn’t need to go far to do so. Swimming in familiar waters back home, she found her dolphin friends were no longer tossing sea leaves to each other, but scraps of plastic. “It breaks my heart,” says Alison. “Dolphins are smart, joyful and caring. We’ve had such a special bond through the years. Of course, I want to protect them.”

Alison standing on a polluted beachAlong with sharing her mission with her large Instagram following, the conservationist gave a TED talk on her discoveries, launched a line of recycled surfboards and helped ban reef-destroying sunscreens in Hawaii and plastic bags in California. Her book, Alison’s Adventures: Your Passport to the World, is filled with travel tales and environmental lessons, such as how our oceans’ five gyres, or circulating currents, have swept plastic debris into massive floating garbage patches. She also offers free adventure films to go along with each chapter on her Alison’s Adventures YouTube and TikTok.

Alison believes all of us can make changes to protect the Earth and, in turn, those we love. “Hopefully the pandemic has made us realize how connected we all are, and we can enter a new era of loving that gives us health and life,” she says. “Whether you’re a lawyer, a gardener, an artist, a teacher or a surfer, we can all help in our own ways.”

Follow along on Instagram and TikTok @alisonsadventures.

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