For eight seasons, “extreme angler” (read: daring fisherman) Jeremy Wade has been coming face-to-gills with some of the world’s ugliest, scaliest, and sometimes most dangerous creatures on River Monsters. In the long-running Animal Planet series, Wade travels the globe, following stories and folklore that come out of the nooks and crannies of far-flung places like central India, the Amazon, and Greenland, to discover aquatic beasts that rarely — if ever — have seen the light of day.
If you think sharks a la Jaws are the most terrifying of sea creatures, think again. “A lot of fish that live in the sea, they are your normal, nice, pretty, silvery, shiny fish,” Wade said when he stopped by EW for a chat about the final season of River Monsters. “The thing about freshwater is, you can’t see what’s there. If there’s zero visibility, there’s not much point being pretty because no one can see you. And also, if you want to find your way around, you can’t really see, so you tend to have things like tentacles.”
That’s right, eeew. Over the years, Wade has caught (and subsequently released) some of the slimiest and largest animals to come out of the murky depths, always maintaining a scientific fascination throughout (in addition to a fisherman, Wade is a biologist).
With those adventures, of course, has come a fair share of risk. “People assume I’m fearless,” Wade allowed, but he maintained that in reality, he gets just as afraid as anyone else. “A lot of the things I deal with are pretty scary. Fear makes you pay attention — it’s about absolute concentration.”
Attention and concentration notwithstanding, here is a collection of some of Wade’s most death-defying moments over the years:
1. Electric eel
When thinking about the most dangerous creatures he’s ever encountered, Wade was quick to mention the electric eel. “A big one can deliver about 500 volts,” he said, noting that a victim could even drown in shallow water since the shock can paralyze a person and knock her over — face down in the water. “If someone comes to help you, they’re gonna get zapped as well.”
To handle the eels for River Monsters, Wade took all the necessary precautions, but the risk was still very, very real. “We got the kind of people who work on power lines,” he said. “Thick rubber boots and gloves. We took a defibrillator.” This was after he heard a local story of someone getting attacked by an electric eel that wrapped around the victim’s chest, delivering shock after shock directly to the heart until death.
2. The massive arapaima
Perhaps Wade’s closest brush with death also occurred in the Amazon, when he was trying to net an arapaima in a pond. The arapaima is a very large freshwater fish that can weigh up to 400 pounds. The one Wade was handling “only” weighed about 80 pounds, he estimated, when it suddenly hit him squarely in the chest. “I don’t know if it was making a last bid for freedom or if it actually was aiming for me,” Wade remembered. “He hit me in the sternum. I could still feel that after six weeks. I was very worried at the time that it might have damaged my heart.” Thankfully, though, Wade lived to tell the tale, along with many others.
3. Extreme weather
When wading waste deep in a forest river, sometimes the most dangerous element can come from above, not below. “The worst thing that happened when filming River Monsters was the time when our sound recordist was hit by lightning,” Wade recalled. Apparently, the unlucky sound guy (who wasn’t even holding a boom at the time) was wearing very thick rubber-soled boots, and an entire patch of skin on his legs just above had all the hair singed off. Amazingly, the victim never lost consciousness, but when Wade asked if he had a headache, on a scale of 1 to 10, the answer was “definitely a 10. I never had anything like this before.”
Weather has always been a major wild card for Wade and his crew. “Being out on the water, you’re very exposed,” he said. “In the Amazon, one cause of death that’s not uncommon is getting caught out in a storm. What people sometimes do is, they’re out in the middle of the river, and the storm comes, so they go into the side of the river and a tree falls on top of them.”
4. The stabbing catfish
While not exactly a brush with death, Wade recalled the “extremely painful” experience of being stabbed by a small catfish in the back of his hand in Argentina. “They tend to have a toxic slime in there, which stings an awful lot,” Wade remembered. “It bled quite a lot at the time.” The obvious lesson here: Don’t base a creature’s risk factor only on its size.
5. Pesky fishing hooks
“I’ve managed to hook myself a couple of times,” Wade said as he thought of his River Monsters shoots. “Once I was landing a small piranha… As I’m reaching to unhook it, it kicked and one of the other points end up in my finger.” He mentioned that the director loved it because there’s nothing like a “moment of real pain,” but obviously, it could have been much worse.
The ninth and final season of River Monsters premieres this Sunday, April 23, at 9 p.m. ET on Animal Planet.