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 spear-equipped swimmers mostly live in the ocean, but you do find them in fresh water in Southeast Asia and the Amazon. "They are probably the most feared fish in South America," says Wade. "If you step on them, they will take exception and stab you in the foot or lower leg. By all accounts, it's incredibly painful. It's a sharp blade: serrated down the sides and covered in toxic, necrotic venom. It makes a very messy, dirty wound." Though not usually fatal, a sting can lead to complications if left untreated. "Worst case, it can get gangrenous and you might have to amputate the leg," he says, adding, "well, very worst case, I've heard stories of children who get stabbed in the abdomen. That can be fatal in a short period of time."
Credit: Animal Planet
How to stay safe: Don't step on them. This can be difficult, since they're often buried in mud. But locals can show you how to do what's called the "stingray shuffle." "Instead of picking your feet up and planting them down, you do shuffle them forward," says Wade. "That way you're going to sort of nudge the edge of the stingray, in which case it will probably just flutter away. It will make them aware that you're there without actually having trodden on them."