Jeremy Wade on the ‘weirdest’ creature he had crossed paths with
We saw world-renowned angler and freshwater detective Jeremy Wade catch a 200 kilogram stingray in Thailand, a stabbing catfish in Argentina, an 8-foot sheatfish in Spain and a 36kg arapaima in India, particularly in TV shows like “River Monsters” and “Dark Waters.”
If you have closely followed Jeremy’s 40-year career as an adventurer traveling to some of the world’s most remote rivers, you saw the deadly risks he took to come “face-to-gills” with the river monsters he pursued—like getting arrested for spying in Southeast Asia, catching cerebral malaria in the Congo, or surviving a plane crash in the Amazon.
In his latest series, “Unknown Waters with Jeremy Wade,” which premieres tonight at 10 on National Geographic, the 65-year-old British host embarks on a spectacular journey above and below the surface of the world’s greatest river systems, like The Amazon—and beyond.
“‘Unknown Waters’ is like an evolution of ‘River Monsters,’ where each episode plays out almost like a detective story,” said Jeremy when we asked him about how different the new series is during our recent one-on-one chat on Zoom. “It started off with somebody dangling his foot in the water and something bit it. And because the water was muddy, he couldn’t see what it was, so I’d come in and investigate. At the end of the program. I would pull something out of the water and show people that this was probably what it was.”
Tales worth telling
“That kept us going for nine seasons. In the beginning, I would never have believed it could run that long. Yes, it’s always difficult when you change something very successful on TV, and some people thought we just got tired of it. But eventually, you’ll run out of stories to tell. Still, there are lots of other fish down there—and many other tales worth telling,” he said.
“For ‘Unknown Waters,’ we started off intending to do a series about the Amazon, but then COVID hit—and we basically could no longer do that. So, the first place we went to was Iceland, because they have a good program of control going against COVID.
“What I’m doing now is that each episode is sort of a portrait of a fish, like the bull shark or the Atlantic salmon, and examining its relationship with humans in that particular area.
“People who tune in will see a lot of continuity with ‘River Monsters’—so, it’s still me. You get a bit more biology and a little more human culture. I feel quite nostalgic about the old days of ‘River Monsters,’ but there comes a time when I have to move on, really.”
In the first episode, Jeremy’s adventure takes him to Iceland’s river systems in search of the elusive Atlantic salmon, a fish that even Jeremy has never caught before.
When we told him how we liked the new series’ ability to make viewers feel they’re part of the action, and not merely distant spectators, Jeremy said, “I’m pleased to hear that because that’s what we very much try to get across. We need viewers to understand what’s going on—where I’m going, and why I’m going there.
“Occasionally, you might run into a dead-end, or come across something that’s a bit of a surprise. The same thing happens in real life. It’s not always going to be a nice and neat ABCD story.”
Our Q&A with Jeremy:
How young were you the first time you went fishing? At what point in your journey did you decide that this is the line of work you want to pursue?
I first went fishing when I was about 7 or 8 years old in England, and the first fish I caught was just a few inches long. What that did is hard to explain to people who haven’t done it, but there was something about making contact with the mysterious underwater world that awakened my curiosity. That’s a process that I still follow every time I go to different places or discover a different fish.
I reached a point where I sort of lost interest with fishing in England [because] everything was becoming crowded. But I came across a magazine article about a fish in India, so I went there in my mid-20s and caught a [Himalayan] mahseer and wrote a couple of articles about it.
I had this realization that a lot of the things that I was seeing I’ve never actually seen in wildlife programs on TV. There was a gap in the market—and that was [coverage for] freshwater fish! And the reason for that is that fresh water is very different from the sea, where water is often clear.
You send somebody off the side of a boat with a camera, and he can film everything with beautiful footage. If you do that in rivers, you won’t get very good pictures. So, the challenge was, how do we show people that these never-before-seen creatures exist?
Quick facts: The amount of fresh water in the world is a tiny fraction of the amount of water in the sea—it’s something like .01 percent of the water in the sea. But the number of species is about the same. So, you’ve got the same number of species in a tiny fraction of the water—that’s a huge group of animals that had largely been neglected!
You’ve shown us a lot of different creatures through the years. What was the most fascinating and most unique creature for you?
That’s such a hard question to answer. OK, the one that really jumps out, and this was surprisingly in the ocean, is the oar fish—an incredibly mysterious sea fish that’s hardly ever seen. They’re long, weird, ribbon-like creatures with a crest on their head. Normally, they’re found in coastal waters when they’re dead or dying, but they’re believed to live really deep in the ocean. A few years ago, we got a bit of a tip off, and we thought it might be possible to film one while we were in the Mediterranean. It was nighttime, and I was in dive gear with an underwater cameraman and support divers. At some point, we actually managed to film three of them around me—I don’t think it’s ever happened before! They align themselves almost vertically in the water. A lot of fish are very nervous if you get in the water, but these fish were really close—it was like they were very curious about me and didn’t seem to feel threatened at all.
We said in the program that more people have actually set foot on the moon than something like that happening.
I’ve seen the episode about the bull shark going from the sea to the freshwater of the Amazon River. What changes in the physiology of a creature that goes from saltwater to freshwater? It can’t be all that easy, right?
Absolutely. That’s a very good question with a very complicated answer. Most fish that live in the sea cannot survive in fresh water. Its cells will take up water and explode, and the same thing happens if you do it the other way around. So, to survive, the physiology of fish has to make adjustments in order to stay alive. It’s interesting [because] bull sharks are among the few creatures that can do that.
The Atlantic salmon is another one: They start in fresh water, go into the sea, and back again. So does the eel. And you’re right, the physiology has to change, but that’s a challenge to put across in a TV show. INQ
“Unknown Waters with Jeremy Wade” premieres tonight at 10 on National Geographic (channels 41/195 on SkyCable; 141/240 on Cignal).
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