Jeremy Wade strides into a New York City restaurant, murmurs a hello, and extends his right hand. We're not convinced we want to shake it. After all, the host of Animal Planet's popular adventure show 'River Monsters' has, with this very appendage, grasped all sorts of unpleasant aquatic creatures, from the mildly icky to the downright terrifying. Then there's the radiation. During the show's current season, Wade devotes an episode to hunting down a mysterious mutated fish that's supposedly living in an old cooling pool next to Chernobyl's notorious reactor 4. Who knows what sort of nuclear residue clings to this proffered palm?
We force ourselves to accept his hand (without any apparent adverse consequences). With that bit of unpleasantness behind us, we sit down to discuss 'River Monsters'' fifth season, which finds Wade traveling even further afield in search of man-eating fish. "Our subject matter is finite," Wade explains. "We're talking about apex predators, and we're getting close to the end of the list. Being in that situation forces you to dig a bit deeper, think a bit laterally. That has led to some quite interesting stories."
Season 5's gory first episode finds Wade on the trail of a horror-movie-style underwater menace that tore a man's face off in a remote part of Bolivia. The two-hour season finale, meanwhile, is an in-depth look at that greatest of all marine-life mysteries: the Loch Ness monster. Did he finally find Nessie? "Um...we found something," says Wade, a biologist and skilled angler. "Without giving too much away, we have a very dramatic revelation at the end of the program. It was quite an intense experience."
Then there's the Chernobyl episode, during which Wade carries a monitor to make sure he doesn't take in too much radiation. "It was a very interesting place to go," he says. "As well as the [cooling pool] and the reactor, there's Pripyat, which is this abandoned modern city. The feeling you get wandering around there in total silence is unlike anything I've experienced. It's a very short step to imagining yourself as the lone survivor in some post-apocalyptic world."
Few people know as much about nasty fresh-water predators as Wade, and because you never know when you'll find yourself splashing around some carnivore-infested tropical waterway, it seemed wise to ask him not only for a list of the most terrifying creatures he's encountered, but also for his advice on how to avoid becoming lunch.
Why they're dangerous: Part of the reason these South American fish are so hazardous is that they look relatively harmless. But Wade says a large one can give you a major jolt. "If you accidentally get too close to an electric eel and it perceives that as a threat, then it will produce a big shock," he says. "You don't get a lot of fatalities, but quite a lot of people get zapped by them. You don't even have to be in physical contact with one." And occasionally electric eels do kill people. "[A big shock] will basically paralyze your muscles, and if you're unlucky and face down, you're going to drown very quickly." Wade once heard a story about a man who fell in the water and was attacked by an especially angry electric eel. "The next thing that happened, which is particularly creepy, is the fish wound itself around the man's chest and continued to shock. It actually killed him by stopping the heart."
Credit: Franco Banfi / Getty Images
How to stay safe: Avoid the sort of places where electric eels hang out. "They tend to have definite hideouts," says Wade. "They're quite territorial. They like living in caves and holes and under rocks. If you see an electric eel, don't swim or wash there. That's their home and they're not going to take kindly to uninvited visitors."