INTERVIEW: Jeremy Wade [River Monsters]

The final season of River Monsters premieres Sunday, April 23, 9pm on Animal Planet.

Animal Planet’s intrepid traveler Jeremy Wade returns in River Monsters’ ninth and final season. In the show, Wade travels the globe in search of the rarest water creatures known to man. TV and City recently caught up with Wade over the phone to chat about his adventures, and some series highlights.

You’ve been doing the show for nine seasons now, how did you keep things exciting? You certainly don’t come off as bored in the episodes.

I think every fish was different really – that was the thing. I think the reason we’re stopping now is we’ve run out of fish, or fish of the type we need to make this program. Everyone was a new challenge. Fishing is really a puzzle, and like any kind of puzzle it keeps you stimulated. And it’s been really great. We weren’t necessarily expecting the level of enthusiasm that we found in viewers. We did set out to make it not your normal fishing show that would only appeal to a certain small group of people. We wanted to open it up from that, so we added in this sort of detective story element. But it succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, and the audience has been far larger than we thought it would be. A lot of women watching, a lot of children watching as well; we’ve got a very young audience. So, when you’re making the program, and I’m obviously there with the crew, you do have this sense of ‘There’s all these people looking over our shoulder and we’re sharing this experience’ and there is really an awareness of that, everywhere that I went to.

You mentioned the detective story element of the show. Which mystery from this upcoming season do you find most compelling?

In some ways, we’ve saved the best for last. One of the episodes, I’m fishing deeper than I’ve ever fished before. This was in Norway, and the numbers don’t really mean anything [to the average viewer], so I was trying to sort of equate that to something that people might relate to. Imagine sitting right at the very top of the Empire State Building, on the top of the antennae, and lowering something down to street level. That was what I was doing there. Then hooking something substantial and sort of wind that thing up to you. That was quite an unbelievable experience.

I also personally went a lot deeper than I’ve gone before. Obviously I started off by putting a line in the water first, and then bringing the fish to me, bringing them out of the water. A couple of years ago, I was doing a lot of scuba diving but there are limits to how deep you can go, about 100 feet down. On one the episodes this season, I was in the submersible where we went down over 2,000 feet. That was nice as well, into the Cayman Trench in Honduras. The thing that made that particularly interesting was that [the submersible] was homemade by a guy with no real engineering qualifications. He’s a very interesting character actually. He built the first one when he was a teenager in his parents’ garden out of old plumbing parts. I took an absolute liking to this guy… He was completely new to what he was doing. So we’re there in his craft going down, and again I know 2,000 feet doesn’t really mean a lot, it’s just a number, but we were sinking through the water, and we had the light on so you could see the particles in the water, and you could see that we’re sinking slowly through the water. To reach the bottom took 45 minutes. And then we sat down there waiting for something to show up for about, I was in that thing four times and on one occasion over eight hours, so that was a pretty intense experience.

How did you first get into the fishing world? Has it always been a hobby of yours?

Well, I fished a lot when I was a kid in the UK. Because it’s a small country, not much water, when I first started it was an escape. I would disappear over the fields, and I wouldn’t see anybody else, and I quite liked that. I like the solitude, just being alone with nature. And I think just about the time I was doing it, more people started to appear on the water, so I actually gave up fishing. I got the idea of traveling and it led seamlessly back into that. I gave up the fishing because it wasn’t really doing it for me any longer. And then just by chance, I read an article in a magazine about a particular fish in India, and I just got this idea planted in my head that I would go and catch this thing. It took a couple of years, as I didn’t know what I was doing, I hadn’t traveled outside of Europe, so I was pretty unprepared, but I did catch some fish, and I started writing about my travels. That’s what indirectly led to River Monsters.

As this is the final season, what has been your favorite location throughout the series?

Gosh that’s hard. We filmed an episode in Papua, New Guinea before, but this time we were in a place called New Britain. It’s an island off the north coast of the main New Guinea, and very different in character. When you think Papua, New Guinea, normally you’re talking about land-locked, very inaccessible. Where we were for this episode, its people living on the coast. A lot of small islands, images made up of huts on stilts, and very often those huts overhanging water, and we actually had high tide every day. Then I met the fish there, a fish I’ve known about for a long time called the New Guinea Black Bass, which I’d never had the opportunity to go and have a look at so if pressed that would be favorite.

In the upcoming season, you land the biggest fish of your career. Can you tell us more about that?

The biggest fish was what I was going to look at in the submersible as we spoke about. I wanted to actually go along and look at that underwater. That episode also includes me pulling one up, and I don’t want to give too much away here, but the fish that I caught was way bigger than anything I’d caught in nine seasons. And the one that I caught was in Ascension Island, which a lot of people even in England, where I come from, don’t know where Ascension Island is. It is a British territory but it’s stuck in the middle of the Atlantic and you get there on a military flight. It’s at the top of a volcano sticking out of the ocean, and that was a pretty special location as well. It wasn’t just this particular type of fish that we caught. There were lots of really interesting species there.

Are there any crazy moments you didn’t get on film that you wish you had?

Sometimes. The thing about the show is that it’s not just about the fish. If it were it would get quite boring, but the show is about the emotions of catching the fish. For me, one of the most exciting moments is when you’ve been sitting there for hours and hours and nothing happens and suddenly there is something there on the line. We do want to record that moment, and a lot of people always wonder how we always got that moment. It’s partly due to having an alert cameraman, but it’s also a feature we use called pre-rolls, where the camera, rather than having it rolling the whole time filling up lots of tapes, it records onto a cache, which is just a few seconds. I think we set it somewhere between five and seven seconds, and if you hit the button, you reach back and get those seven seconds. So, the one moment, this goes back to season one actually when I got one of my most dramatic injuries, where I was basically pouring blood everywhere and I was yelling at the cameraman that he’s got to film this. We’ve got real blood, we’re making a program about bull sharks, and he was just saying ‘no you’re hysterical, we’ve got to get you to a hospital.’ We spent 4 times as much time arguing about it then it would’ve taken for him to film it. That was actually a very prosaic injury. I got my hand shut in the door of a vehicle. We learned a lesson from that, because what we do can be dangerous at times, though we do our homework, there are still injuries sometimes, and there is drama. If possible, roll on everything. Don’t do it if it’s going to get in the way of getting somebody help, but if you can possibly document it as well, do that. We had one of our sound recorders about four years ago hit by lightning, and we filmed that at the same time as we helped him and made sure that he was okay.

Any surprises coming up this season you can share with fans?

There was one episode a few seasons ago, where on the rare occasion, I didn’t catch the [target] fish. So in this season, one of the episodes is about settling an old score. My pride was slightly bruised on that occasion, so we weren’t going leave it there, we had to go back to see if we could get a rematch, this time with a better result.

What’s the toughest fish you’ve ever tried to catch?

The Goliath Tiger Fish in the Congo from season two. Part of that is, it’s a very tough fish to catch anyway. You don’t get many chances and it’s got a very boney mouth. They tend to, within seconds of hooking them, jump out of the water and stick the hook back at you. It’s in a part of the world where very few outsiders and film crews go, and you’re doing well just by coming out of there in one piece. If you can travel there and have the energy to do something, then you’re doing very well. So that’s catching a not just difficult, but a very dramatic fish as well. That was probably the biggest gamble we made making River Monsters, and we knew that it was a very hard fish to catch. We knew that it would be worth it if we did get it. I had been to that part of the world before, I’d actually made three journeys to the Congo, but the first two times I went there I didn’t catch anything at all. That’s how difficult it can be. The first time I went, it was for two months and I left empty handed. It was quite a hard sell to the production company, and then for the production company to sell it to Animal Planet, but the gamble paid off and that was probably one of our most dramatic episodes. It’s a fish, like a giant piranha, and everyone who saw it remembers it.

Are you into any other extreme sports or has angling always been your favorite?

Before River Monsters started, I was getting into a bit of rock climbing. I’ve been doing some stuff on climbing walls and I just started getting out doing traditional lead climbing in the few quarries near where I live. It was a bit difficult to do that because it’s raining all the time in England and you don’t want to be climbing on wet rock. As soon as River Monsters took off, that unfortunately came to a halt. What’s been nice about River Monsters is that I was qualified to dive a long time ago, but over the years I never really did a lot of it. Two years ago, the entire season was salt water and I was spending a lot of time under the water. I did some more training, particularly to dive with a more demanding outfit. The best moment of that season was swimming underwater with an oarfish. That’s something that hardly anybody has ever done. More people have walked on the moon than have been underwater with an oarfish.

What is your favorite fish from the entire series?

I feel a certain affinity with Arapaima, a fish that lives in the Amazon. When I was doing my solo traveling, it took me six years to catch my first one. An Arapaima, is not particularly big but it hit me in the chest once. A very painful injury, I could still feel it after six weeks. They’re incredibly exotic. People don’t often give fish credit for intelligence, but in the process of learning about Arapaima, I used to go out on trips with Brazilian nets men, and see how they would try to catch them and it was almost like a game of chess. Arapaima come up to the surface to gulp air, so it’s a real cat-and-mouse thing. The fishermen would watch quietly and see where a fish came up and they’d put a net across that corner of the lake and gradually box it in, hoping it would panic. Yet sometimes the fish would jump over the net, or slide underneath it. I even saw on one occasion, it gently put its nose into the mesh, expanded its head and actually broke the net, enough to make a hole and get through. They are incredibly intelligent and in breeding season they are very pretty. Bright red and black, a sort of mixture.

After 10 years doing the show, what’s the next step in your career?

This is the big question, and we have such a tremendous group of fans out there, very, very diverse, very hungry for something else. I’m not completely positive yet. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to

be busy this year, I can’t say more than that. We’re all furiously racking our brains and we’re pretty sure that there’s something else TV-wise. I’m also writing a bit, but I think keep watching your TV screens. There’s a chance I might pop up back on there under some guise in the future.

Animal Planet