Daily Planet host Ziya Tong makes her mark on Discovery Channel science series

- Daily Planet, Discover Channel Canada featuring hosts Ziya Tong and Dan Riskin airs Monday through Friday at 7 and 11 p.m.

CONFIRMING what science fans everywhere secretly imagine, Ziya Tong reveals the Daily Planet office water cooler is a great place to hear some bizarre conversations.

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"One day it will be about technology used to track leopards, another day it will be some ROV space thing," says Tong. "It's a place that you kind of want to hang out."

After four years, Tong has made her mark at Daily Planet, a nightly science and technology show on Discovery Channel Canada. She joined perennial fan favourite Jay Ingram as co-host in 2008 after previous co-host Natasha Stillwell returned to her native Scotland.

Ingram, who has authored several bestselling books and was with the show since its inception 17 years ago, retired last year, but Tong says they are still great friends.

"He wanted to get up to his own adventures," she says of Ingram. "I think he was getting studio fever a little bit. He wanted to go out and stretch his limbs and legs, and one of the opportunities that you can be afforded at Discovery Channel is the chance to go far afield and travel and go on adventures and subject yourself to weird experiments; and we can do that a little bit when we're in studio, but most of the time we have to do a show every single night. So he has a lot more freedom now and I think he's going to be taking advantage of it."

This season, Tong was joined by new co-host Dan Riskin, an evolutionary biologist who specializes in bat research. Tong says Riskin has the right combination of fun, enthusiasm and passion.

"He's wonderful," she says, noting he and Ingram are "Just as different as different people would be."

She notes, however, the differences are not due to age (Riskin is younger than Ingram).

"Sometimes it was like working with a 16-year-old, working with Jay. He had a lot more energy than I would," says Tong, adding Ingram biked "all over the place."

One thing they all have in common is their love of science. Among her hobbies, Tong lists reading, research and "being endlessly curious." She has a particular interest in natural history and forensics, but adds: "When you're working at Daily Planet you can't really be an information or a science snob, either.

You kind of like it all."

However, Tong, who serves on the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund, also feels strongly about the environmental segments on the show.

"If you really love the natural world, by extension you need to fight to protect it given the circumstances that we live in today," she says.

Although she says she believes there are "a few shining lights" in the fight for environmental protection, there is still room for concern.

"On the larger scale when we look at species decline, and really what's looking to be the sixth great extinction that we are currently living through, when you look at what's happening to our fresh water; when you look at what's happening especially with all the CO2; the ocean acidification; the over-fishing; I really feel like we're in a bit of trouble," says Tong. "We need to address it. I don't want to be doom and gloom, I'd rather be doom and bloom, but ultimately I know that there are issues that we have to tackle a little more head-on and we can't ignore it."

The subject of marine protection surfaced recently when Tong was shooting Daily Planet's special, Titanic: Under the Microscope, which aired in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the large passenger ship on April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 passengers died when the ship hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Tong says she was surprised to find out modern-day garbage is being found at the site of the Titanic remains, presumably from tourists who are visiting the site and dumping their trash overboard.

"That's another area where we need to start thinking about marine protection if we're interested in keeping as much of the Titanic around for as long as we can," she says.

Despite the slew of Titanic-themed TV fare in the weeks leading up to and after the centenary anniversary, Tong notes the Daily Planet special planned to be different.

"Unlike just about every show that's going to be tackling it, we're looking at it as this technological marvel. And we're looking at it from the science and tech angle entirely. So almost all of our stories are focused in that way," she says.

For example, Daily Planet regular Alan Nursall, known for his street-side science experiments on the show, subjects himself to extremely low temperatures to see what it would have felt like to be in the icy waters of the North Atlantic at the time the ship sank. He swallows a small thermometer pill that can be monitored wirelessly to see what the exposure to cold temperatures will do to his body and what kind of hypothermia he may or may not get to.

Tong also highlights a segment on rusticles, which are microbes feeding off the iron from the steel in the ship.

"Within 200 years they're going to have done an incredible amount of damage. They'll have eaten a lot of the ship away, which is amazing," she says.

Although 100 years have passed since the tragedy, Tong has some ideas about why the story of the Titanic remains so popular.

"The thing with the Titanic is that at its time, a hundred years ago, we're talking about the pinnacle of technology," she says. "And on its very maiden voyage, this thing, this unsinkable ship that everybody had pinned their hopes on failed. And some of the failure was really due to human error, and so we're always dealing with that question and that's where the mystery lies. How much was this a failure of technology? How much was this a failure of the human beings who were steering it? And I think that that's something that continues."

She has also heard it described as a horror story.

"It's really a horror story. And it's a monster story where water is the monster. You've got water in the form of the cold North Atlantic, you've got it in the form of steam that's about to bust open parts of the ship, and then you've also got it in the ice and the gigantic iceberg."

Tong, who loves to travel in her spare time, travelled with Riskin to the shipyard in Belfast where the Titanic was built to shoot segments of the special. She says being able to travel for the show is just one more way her hobbies are her job. Having lived in Los Angeles and New York, Tong currently lives in Toronto where Daily Planet is produced, but returns to Vancouver at least once a year to visit family and friends. (She moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong when she was 11.)

Just finishing up her fourth season with Daily Planet, Tong, who is also a producer on the show, seems to have made an easy transition to co-host. This despite losing Ingram, who was synonymous with the show, and following two other temporary co-hosts who stepped in after Stillwell's departure, but didn't stay long.

Like so many others, Tong is a fan of Daily Planet and it shows.

"This is really, for me anyway, a shining bastion, a sort of beacon that is still left on TV. We have fun stuff on our show, without a doubt, but things go deeper quite often. We have engineering stories, we have physics stories, we have stories about natural history, about robotics, and you can't help but be endlessly fascinated about the world that we live in," she says. "So for anybody who gets a little bit bored just flipping on the TV and watching somebody toss their hair and strut down a runway, I think this is a good alternative."

She adds with a hearty laugh: "We have the same thing, we just have robots do it."

Daily Planet airs Monday-Friday, 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., on Discovery Channel Canada.

rduane@nsnews.com

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