This week, I interviewed Jeremy Wade, the star of Animal Planet’s top rated show of all-time, River Monsters. The show begins its fifth season on Sunday Night at 9 pm Eastern with a two-hour episode entitled Face Ripper. If you’ve seen the show, it involves Wade traveling to various parts of the world looking into reports or legends of fresh water attacks and trying to determine the potential sources. I began watching because my son made me watch, and now we catch every episode. I thought it would be a fun and interesting change to interview the guy who climbs in the water with Piranhas and giant catfish.
Q: You have traveled to Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Nicaragua, Bolivia, the United States, and Loch Ness in Scotland, among others this season. How much background work goes into it, and where do you get the information on the local stories and attacks, before you even get to a site?
Wade: Yeah, in the early days, the first one or two seasons, an awful lot of it was based on my own traveling. I’ve been traveling for about 25 years, just solo traveling before doing it for the film career. We’ve got a team of people scouring the world. Sometimes stuff on the internet, I think we sort of find our leads anywhere really, sometimes old books. Each particular story, we start researching it several weeks and months beforehand.
Then again, that’s often because we have paperwork, film permits, all that kind of thing to sort out. A lot of the stories as well, in order to catch these fish, there is often only one right period of the year. For example in South America, water levels go up and down a lot. Generally speaking, in periods of flood, there’s much more water level, fish are much more spread out. There often not just difficult to find, they can be impossible to find. So you’ve got to get where you are going at the right time. The trouble is, when you are making these six programs as opposed to one, they can often conflict. There is a lot of planning that goes into it.
Q: You have been doing the traveling thing for a long time as you said, I think I read since 1982. The show’s success is a testament to someone finding something they love and finding their passion in life. At what point did you get the vision of what this show has become as you were doing your travels?
Wade: At the time, everything seemed very accidental. Looking back on things, as is so often the case, there seems to be some storied logic when you look back on it. When I was living it, I would try to travel every year or every other year for about three months. So I was writing occasional articles about it, not very many, and not very successfully. I had this idea while I was doing that, that there was some type of TV potential, because some of the fish and other creatures that I was seeing were some that nobody had seen on television.
Unlike the situation with the sea, think about the visibility or rather the lack of visibility in fresh water, you can’t do the Jacques Cousteau thing where you get in the water and you film everything and you make a program, and that just hadn’t been done in fresh water. I think what we do with the show–some people say it is a fishing show, I don’t actually think that it is, it sort of is, but to me it is a means to an end. It is the only way that you are going to see these creatures. So, I had this idea that was potential, but how it actually came about was quite accidental and very slow.
Q: You have seen lots of species over the four, and now five seasons of the show, which River Monsters species do you most personally identify or have a connection with?
Wade: Yes, there are a couple. One would be the Arapaima in the Amazon. It is widely quoted to be the biggest fresh water fish in the world, nobody knows for sure but it is widely said to be. This is something that I went down to Brazil the first time in 1993, and thought if I could catch one of these things, that would be a good story. It ended up taking me six years, going back every year, and I had sort of given up at one point. I accidentally came back to it, caught one of these fish, manage to get a good picture of it which appeared in a national newspaper in the UK, was seen by a TV producer, and ten years later, managed to get a smaller cable in UK interested in doing a documentary about that.
The thing about the Arapaima, it is this magnificent fish. It grows to about ten foot long, maybe 500 pounds. It looks very strange as well. I think it is both simultaneously beautiful and ugly. It’s got this sort of rather sculpted, bony head. At certain times, they take on this very beautiful coloration, this light red splash of a color all over the body, particularly the tail, sometimes an absolutely jet black background. The indigenous name, Pirarucu, literally means red fish. It can look very beautiful, and I just wanted to see one for a very long time.
The other fish probably is the Goliath Tigerfish in the Congo. Before I went to the Amazon, I made three trips to the Congo rain forest, in search of this Goliath Tigerfish. It’s sort of like a giant Piranha, but nobody really knows about it.
Q: I think that is the one that scared me the most watching the show.
Wade: Right, yes, and I think this was a fish when I first went to that part of the world, I went there for two months in 1985, caught nothing at all. Went back in 1990, and caught nothing at all except for a bad case of malaria. The next year, I actually caught one, but it was a medium sized one, just under forty pounds. I’m thinking well, this isn’t the full story, it’s unfinished business. Last year, I finally caught a big one, which I had been after all the time, at just under eighty pounds.
Thinking back right now, that was a huge gamble to sort of go for something that was so difficult, with the film crew and all the expense and everything that entails. We caught that fish, basically hard work and luck, twenty-five years after I first tried to catch one.
And again, I just think the aspect of that fish, from everything behind the head, it is very beautiful, bright silver, you’ve got these very hydrodynamic scales. Then, the head is like something out of a horror movie, like an aquatic Terminator or whatever. The jaw, there are actually two hinges in the jaw that enables it to open up almost flat. Unlike a lot of fish–the Arapaima will swallow prey whole–the Goliath Tigerfish will just bite a clean lump out of whatever it goes for, that has been known to include crocodiles and people. A little bit of perspective there, the teeth on the one I caught, just under eighty pounds, were about an inch long. Which is about the same size as the teeth on a 1,000 pound Great White Shark, which everyone gets excited about. Here you’ve got a rabid fish, which is pound for pound much more impressive, and hardly anyone knows about it.
Q: Another gripping aspect of the show is getting involved with the indigenous people, you’ve been to New Guineau, you’ve been all over Africa and South America, and you’ve also been to Oklahoma. So tell me, was Noodling perhaps the most bizarre fishing method you have come across in your travels?
A: Not necessarily the most bizarre. It would be on the list of most bizarre. We did an episode a couple of years ago where I went to the Solomon Islands, and one thing I did there is connect with this guy, and we made a lure out of spider’s web, and then suspended that from a kite made out of banana leaves, and went out in our dugout canoe, and got the kite up with this spider’s web lure skimming across the surface and this gar fish came on and got tangled in that. So, I’ve done many bizarre things.
In terms of intensity, it was right up there. I think fishing is all about long periods of inactivity and short periods of excitement/fear. In Noodling, everything is happening all in one breath. Take a lung full of air, get under the water, shoving my head past my waist into this hole under the water. There were various bits of rusted automobile down there as well. Somebody is holding onto my ankles, and there is something there the size of a dog that is going to bite me. [laughs]
On camera, the trouble is they can’t really film what is going on under the water, but he said when the fish actually bit me, it displaced so much water that you could actually hear it. I asked him if he actually heard it, he said “I didn’t just hear it, I felt it through the soles of my feet, it actually vibrated through the bank. So that was definitely one of the most intense experiences.
Q: This next question is from my nine year old son, who is one of your biggest fans and makes me watch every episode at least three times.
Wade: That’s good to hear.
Q: He wants to know which of the location is your favorite to visit, and if you weren’t doing the show, which location would you just visit longer to fish?
Wade: The great thing about the show is that I do get to go places I wouldn’t otherwise. I would spend longer in these places, I have to be in and out in two or three weeks. There is a secret location in South America that I would like to go to, I don’t want to say where that is. It would entail six weeks of traveling, but also very hard traveling. We couldn’t really do it with a film crew because we have too much equipment. Yeah, there’s a place there.
Also, I think I’d like to go back to the Congo. It’s hard work when you are there, it’s very demanding and very tiring, but it’s a very primal experience when you are there. It’s a very wild river, there is a real sense of absolutely not knowing what is next. If I’ve run out of things to do, and I’m not physically past it by then, I might get myself back to the Congo.
Q: Well, I’m from Missouri, but I will forgive you for not saying the Ozarks. I’ll let that pass. [laughs] Final question, as it relates to the show, and you’ve been doing this for thirty years, how long can this go on, both the show, and you doing the extensive travel?
Wade: What I do, it is a good example of no pain, no gain. In some sense, the more difficult the travel, the more indelible the memory if you do actually achieve something as a result of that. I’m probably going to keep doing it as long as I am physically capable of it.
I think that there is more than enough to keep my occupied. In terms of what we film, this season is a little different than last season. There is a finite number of these large fish out there. I think the program is starting to mutate a bit. We wondered at the beginning of last year, was there going to be a season five? We found enough subjects for that, and from that some very strong and memorable programs. I don’t know, just sort of taking it year by year. I think there is a little bit more momentum, I don’t want to be too detailed about that, but a couple of years ago I thought it was going to run out of steam. Now, I think it’s got a little bit to go.
[photos and video courtesy Animal Planet]