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: These sharp-toothed South American creatures have a fearsome reputation, but Wade says they're actually not as fearsome as certain horror movies would have you believe. The image of a pack of piranhas skeletizing some hapless swimmer just isn't realistic. "If you look at the teeth, they certainly have the potential to be very dangerous," says Wade. "But most of the time they're not exercising that potential." There are situations where piranhas can be dangerous, however, such as when environmental or ecological changes interfere with their normal feeding. "I did talk to a family a couple of years ago, some people living on a floating house, and a 2-year-old toddler fell into the water," says Wade of one grisly piranha incident. "They just couldn't rescue the child."
How to stay safe: Keep out of the water when peckish piranhas are likely to be about. "The golden rule in most situations is: Talk to the local people," says Wade. "They'll know. If they're in the water, it's normally safe."
Credit: Animal Planet