Sitting in a swimming pool full of piranhas, Jeremy Wade began to suspect his television crew was out for revenge.
First, a producer said the shot would not do by itself, they needed Wade to deliver a few lines. With dozens of piranhas swimming around him, the crew conducted a brief meeting to write a script.
Wade read it, but the sound man deemed it unsatisfactory because of background noise. Now in the pool 30 minutes, the razor-toothed flesh-eating fish were “getting a little more bold,” Wade recounts.
As host of River Monsters, a remarkable show on which Wade investigates claims of man-eating freshwater fish, Wade lives a fishing adventure as a career – while his crew of avid fishermen watch enviously.
Noticing the piranhas beginning to swim behind his back, Wade wondered whether their envy was behind his precarious position, “a little bit of revenge?” as he put it.
Thankfully, he survived the piranha pool. But in South America he brought to the screen survivors from a bus that plunged into the Amazon. When it was finally removed from the water, its occupants were missing most of their flesh.
Wade also found the family of a toddler who slipped into the river during dry season. The family rushed towards the water at the sound of the splash but found it was too late – piranhas were already devouring the child.
All in a day’s work for Wade, a young 54. Besides piranhas, he’s caught human-sucking catfish on the border between India and Nepal. He landed a 400-pound freshwater stingray with a 10-inch barb that delivers a flesh-dissolving, “wish you were dead” sting. And he hooked a vicious, toothy Bull Shark on a river, far inland, in Australia.
But Wade told The Daily Caller the fish he is personally most terrified by is the Goliath Tigerfish, the only fish in Africa unafraid of crocodiles. In fact, it eats them.
Wade said skinny dipping in the Congo River basin, where the fish thrive, is ill advised. “They’re partial to coming along and removing anything that dangles,” he said, adding that he’d require a “Kevlar bathing suit” to go swimming there.
Goliath Tigerfish have sharp, massive teeth that protrude on the outside of their mouths like something from your worst nightmare as a kid. Wade said he’s so fearful of the fish because they tend to attack humans unpredictably.
“If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, if one did happen to be lurking, it could take a very big lump out of you in no time.”
Some of the fish Wade investigates are decidedly less terrifying, even if the ominous soundtrack and voiceovers may fool viewers. For instance, watching an episode on the Snakehead, a nasty invasive species whose voracious eating habits are helping it spread through Florida, one might have thought the fish was threatening mankind’s extinction.
The fish is more of an ecological disaster than a maneater. But on River Monsters, a government official’s hyperbolic warnings are played repeatedly to a terrifying score. I wondered if Wade might laugh at it in private.
“I think some of it is a bit tongue in cheek,” Wade admitted, “we start off with a story, maybe hearing something that sounds a bit far fetched.” Cue the dramatization – which can reach comedy in its urgency. “But then we investigate – separate the factual from the unfactual – like a crime investigation,” Wade said.
In the end, there’s always some truth to the fish tales. “Often, there is something really impressive behind these stories,” Wade said.
And it’s true. For most of the episodes, Wade uncovers scary facts about these fish. He often uncovers first hand accounts of men and women who lost their lives because of them. Even more impressively, Wade is often revealing fish about which there is very little known.
“Fresh water is much more of a mystery. There’s a vacuum of knowledge,” Wade said. He attributes the mysteries of rivers to their murky water which prohibits photography, unlike the vast oceans which are clearer.
Wade is also much more than a fisherman. He’s a kind of roving anthropologist, biologist and master fisherman all in one. (Wade, however, is much more humble about his fishing skills than his record supports).
Fishing is, to Wade, a means of connecting with the people he encounters on his broad travels at a deeper level than would otherwise be possible. Fishing is universal, a path “into the human way of life,” he said.
Pulling off Wade’s investigations into the monsters in the murky deep is an incredible feat of its own. The episodes are shot in only two and a half weeks. In that time, Wade manages not only to track down people who have been involved in dangerous brushes with the monsters, but often catches one himself.
In one episode, tracking a giant catfish, Wade finds a South American man who had a tiny, parasitic catfish swim up his penis while he was relieving himself in the river. As if it weren’t enough to interview him, Wade takes him to a laboratory where the catfish had been preserved, confronting him with its lifeless body.
In that instance, Wade said it wasn’t as awkward as might be suspected, since the man had made a full recovery. In fact, on screen, Wade can barely contain his smile.
But other times the moments are quite painful. When Wade interviews the family of the toddler who was eaten by piranhas, he is visibly shaken. “I do find it very difficult, actually,” Wade said.
The scenes are for entertainment, of course. But it isn’t a fishing show, Jerry Springer style, Wade argued. “Ultimately we are doing it to inform,” he said, taking pride in the “children who watch and are being switched on to the outside world.”
So far, Wade has survived his encounters with fearsome fish, but not without close calls.
In the Congo in 1990, despite taking the requisite pills, he caught malaria. His vision became impaired and he thought he might die. But Wade survived.
In 2002, a scaly Arampaima he was trying to net swam full speed into the net, crushing into Wade’s chest. Six weeks later, Wade still couldn’t rise straight up into a sitting position when laying down. Later, he had a scare when medical tests showed damage to his heart muscle – he suspected the fish. Doctors later cleared his health.
Now at work on season three of River Monsters, Wade recently returned from New Zealand and fished in Papa New Guinea. He’s also slated to face monsters in Japan and hopes the third, and final, season will expand the habitats he locates the terrifying fish of his show.