Monster fish and me! The story of a vicar’s son from Suffolk

The dream began when he was a schoolboy, hooking tiddlers in the Stour. Now Jeremy Wade pulls frightening-looking fish from rivers around the globe. As his new TV series launches, the Ipswich-born biologist tells STEVEN RUSSELL about 150lb ‘monsters’ we should cherish

JEREMY Wade cheerfully squeezes himself into some tight corners in order to separate the fact from the fiction of fishermen’s tales – the kind of stories involving fish that swallow men whole, others that eat them from inside, and yet more that deliver fatal blows. It often means lowering himself into rivers whose murky depths harbour creatures with horror-film jaws. Hazardous enough – but, ironically, his most scary moments have come out water. An experience in the Congo left him partially blind because of malaria. (Locals thought he might die.) In Thailand, hunting for the Mekong giant catfish, he was arrested as a suspected spy. In an accident with a machete he hacked his thumb to the bone and had to perform surgery with super-glue.

And then there was the crashing of a single-engined plane into the Amazon forest . . .

It all sounds a bit of a . . . well . . . dangerous way to live . . . particularly when his favoured form of diving involves taking a breath, holding it and descending many metres for a number of minutes.

Free-diving is about relaxing the mind, explains the 55-year-old. “But when you’re in a Himalayan river, for example, and investigating a story of an allegedly man-eating goonch catfish, and it’s very gloomy and you can’t see more than a few feet; and there’s a cave in the rock and you can see four, maybe five, things in there, nearly as big as you, that is a very intense feeling!

“If one of them hung on to your leg, you’ve got 20 seconds or something.”

Still, it doesn’t put him off.

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“With the plane crash, funnily enough, there almost wasn’t time to be afraid. What was interesting was that a camera kept rolling and we watched the film back, and what we thought was three or four minutes, between the engine failing and the plane hitting the trees, was 14 seconds – an example of how your perception changes in that kind of situation.

“I felt I had to ‘process’ that afterwards, and there were a couple of instances where it woke me up in the night, with the fear deferred.

“The plane came to a halt, with a big impact, and then was still. I’m enormously relieved for a millisecond because we’ve had the impact and I’m still in one piece and not hurting anywhere, and then my very first breath was just fuel. This liquid was pouring over my shoulders and I thought we were going to go up in flames.

“Shortly after that, this liquid was coming up my legs. It reaches my knees; it reaches my waist; it’s coming up my chest. I can’t understand how there’s so much fuel on a small plane – and then I realise it’s water.

“But I couldn’t get out of my harness, and I thought ‘This water’s just going to go up and up and up.’ Then it stopped at about my armpit.

“So there were two moments there . . .”

The Suffolk clergyman’s son’s curiosity and appetite for a challenge have taken him far. His first overseas trip was to the mountain rivers of India, in 1982, and since then he has spent much time tracking down large and little-known fish – particularly in the Congo and the Amazon rainforests.

He’s chalked up some “firsts”, such as filming a large and mysterious creature that was christened “the Amazon Nessie” by a wildlife magazine, and getting the first underwater footage (with cameraman Rick Rosenthal) of the giant devil catfish in India.

His first TV series, Jungle Hooks, was filmed in 2002 for Discovery Europe. River Monsters, his most recent series, has posted the highest-ever audience figures for the channel Animal Planet.

ITV1’s seven-episode third season of River Monsters began on Tuesday (January 3). It follows the successful format of the “detective biologist” subjecting myths and fishermen’s tales to scientific scrutiny before using a line to catch one of the fish at the centre of the claims.

Very often the creatures – some shown on TV for the first time – are of staggering size and unforgettable appearance. The third series brings to 10 the total of 100lb-plus specimens captured on camera. Eight of them have been more than 150lb and a handful even heavier.

The opening episode – entitled The Mutilator – sees Jeremy in Papua New Guinea, investigating reports of a creature that’s allegedly been ripping chunks out of fishermen and . . . er . . . eating male body parts.

With episodes having names like Flesh Ripper, Chainsaw Predator and Electric Executioner, is there a danger of science being subsumed by sensationalism?

While not trying to be overtly preachy, Jeremy does ensure River Monsters has a strong conservation message at heart. Yes, episodes begin with a lively reconstruction of what someone is claiming – the fisherman’s tale – but this is designed to grab the viewer’s attention.

“Some might say it’s a bit sensationalist, but we will investigate and lead into more serious, more biological, territory from there.” It’s about education – in a fun way – and exploring nature. “You can’t get people’s attention just by wagging a finger and lecturing them.”

Jeremy strives to work out if the claims are true: assembling witnesses and re-enacting the event much like a detective. During the process, of course, viewers learn an awful lot about marine life.

Invariably, a fish hasn’t been deliberately attacking people. Perhaps a victim’s behaviour unwittingly mimicked the creature’s normal prey in some way, or the person was encroaching on a breeding site and the fish was acting defensively.

If people learn about creatures they might initially have been afraid of, Jeremy argues, they are more likely to understand how they and the fish can safely co-exist.

He does accept that the team is “opening ourselves to charges of fish-bothering”. The presenter admits he can’t be sure what hooked fish might feel, though suspects they could be more confused and upset with the invisible force pulling them off-course.

On the question of pain from a hook, he remembers trying to catch sawfish in Australia a couple of years ago. Aboriginal rangers gave him dead catfish as bait. The catfish had sharp spines. But the sawfish loved them.

One sawfish (it was tagged, so could be monitored) was caught on Jeremy’s line three times in less than 24 hours. “That fish is not traumatised.”

He argues that the only way to show what’s in some rivers is by using a line: “like taking a sample of the planet’s bloodstream”. It’s by helping people understand what’s there that we can help protect this branch of nature in particular and the globe in general. These kinds of predators are good indicators of the health of a river, too.

Nearly half our fish species live in 0.01% of the world’s lakes and rivers. Yet most of us know little about them – because some rivers are hard to get to, or too murky to yield their secrets.

“I think what I’m trying to do is show most people a group of animals they didn’t know existed; and although many of them are ugly, they do have personalities, they are misunderstood, and, if they disappear, the world is the poorer for it.”

Jeremy is pessimistic about the future health of our water.

“The good thing about rivers is that jurisdiction is usually down to one country, or perhaps two where it flows from one to the other. There are examples of good co-operation where rivers are brought back from the dead: such the Columbia River [which suffered because of damming and over-fishing] in the Pacific north-west of America, which used to have huge runs of sturgeon that almost became extinct.

“The trouble is, that’s a developed country with resources; it doesn’t look so good for rivers in other parts of the world where they have no way to stop people using dynamite [acquired from road-maintenance teams and used to kill large amounts of fish in India] and looking for the next meal.”

Jeremy writes in his latest book about electro-fishing, using wires hooked up to power lines and run down to the water – “an insanely dangerous method and indicative of a level of desperation that I, for one, can scarcely comprehend”.

Add pollution and water removal to damming, “which blocks migration routes and alters age-old flow patterns, and river fish populations worldwide are in a very bad way”.

Then there’s “the casual killing of our fellow creatures that we are doing all the time through our now-untenable belief that our security is assured through ever-increasing consumption.

“Now, more than at any time in the past, the challenge facing every one of us is to learn to coexist with other life. Because the day the last monster dies is the day the river dies too.

“And when that happens, we’re not far behind.”

River Monsters (the book) is published by Swordfish/Orion at �18.99

A river runs through it

JEREMY Wade spent many of his formative years in Nayland, on the Suffolk/Essex border. It’s there, in the River Stour, that he learned to fish: none too successfully at first, but then more fruitfully with the help of a friend whose grandfather was a fly fisherman. “From then on, there was no stopping me; it was a passport to another world. I always wanted to see what was around the next bend.”

Jeremy was born in Ipswich. His father, who had opted out of the family farming business in Norfolk (and been disinherited for it) was a curate in Felixstowe. A move to Bury St Edmunds followed and then, when the lad was about five, to Nayland.

Father took on St James’s Church and was also chaplain to the nearby Jane Walker Hospital, where Jeremy remembers attending fetes.

He caught his first fish at the age of eight or nine, from the Stour. Most days he saw no-one as he fished. If he did, it was likely the village cobbler, Frankie Page. “He was what you’d call a deaf mute. He was very much the local expert. He caught fish others could only dream about. He showed me about catching large fish by design, rather than just blind chance.”

Frankie had a slate and a piece of chalk with which to communicate.

As Jeremy got older he’d strap rods to his bike and fish at other places, such as the lake at Polstead.

He went to primary school at Nayland but then – at the age of 10, and thanks to his father being able to apply for grants “and scrape up money from here and there” – was sent to board at St Edmund’s in Kesgrave, near Ipswich, until he was 13.

On the downside, as a new boy he found himself having to fight the two established school bullies in his first week; on the upside, small class sizes helped turn him from an average pupil to one who rose up the ranks and won a full-fees scholarship to private school at Cheltenham. At the age of 16 he achieved the best exam results in its history.

In terms of fishing, Jeremy had gone on to fish stillwaters for carp and catfish, becoming the youngest member of the British Carp Study Group.

And then he sort of lost his way.

The young man had no idea what he wanted to do after school. Following a year of doing very little, he took a degree in zoology at Bristol and then, in slightly haphazard fashion, added a postgraduate teaching certificate in biological sciences from the University of Kent.

Very early on he realised teaching biology in a comprehensive school wasn’t great. Maintaining discipline took energy. Being organised and entertaining was crucial; but that presupposed a teacher had time to “script” and prepare his or her “performance”. And there wasn’t time in the system to do a proper job.

Jeremy did teach for about a term and a half, but that was enough for him.

So followed a fallow period where he “wandered lost for several years”, having a series of odd jobs such as building-site labourer, farmhand and motorcycle dispatch rider in London.

His passion for fishing waned, too. By his mid-20s, rivers and lakes had become crowded. He hung up his rods.

Jeremy moved to Leeds and, by chance, came across a magazine at a jumble sale. “The cover picture was this immense golden-scaled thing that lives in the rivers of India, a mahseer, and that planted a seed in my head.”

In the spring of 1982 he dusted down a couple of rods, packed them inside a length of drainpipe, and boarded a DC10 for Delhi. “I had just �200 concealed under my clothes and scarcely a clue as to how I was going to survive the next three months.”

So began a new addiction, “to the amplified and compressed ups and downs of travelling alone through an unfamiliar landscape”.

Back home, he wrote a couple of articles about his overseas experiences and sold them to a magazine. Was it possible to eek a living from his passion?

Over the next decade he made five more expeditions, lasting between two and five months each. In Thailand he sought giant catfish. A return to India landed a southern mahseer of 92lb. Three times he went to the Congo rainforest, drawn by the goliath tigerfish.

Another job, on a “threadbare employment record” that included art tutor and dishwasher, was copywriter at an advertising agency in Swindon for more than three years. They all helped the dreams come true, though.

After co-writing and self-publishing Somewhere Down the Crazy River, a book about his travels in India and Central Africa, in 1993 Jeremy made his first expedition to the Amazon – on the trail of the arapaima. At, potentially, 15 feet long, it’s the largest fish in the world’s largest river.

It was a quest that would stretch over six years. However, a photograph of that fish, draped over Jeremy’s shoulder and its mouth threatening to swallow the camera, was printed in a newspaper and spotted by a TV producer who reckoned it would make an intriguing documentary.

It led to a five-part series called Jungle Hooks, aired in 2002, that showed the first capture on TV of a 200lb arapaima – and that plane crash in the forest.

Though it wasn’t plain sailing after that (there were, for instance, many times when Jeremy scratched around for odd bits of copy-editing work) it was the start of a TV career.

In 2006 came a follow-up series called Jungle Hooks: India. Then Animal Planet, part of the Discovery empire, went for the River Monsters idea.

The opening programme was shown in the spring of 2009 and featured piranha.

Today, Jeremy lives in a village south of Bath and is away from this country for about half the year. A fourth series of River Monsters is already in the can.

Fairly recently he was offered “an eyepopping sum, about equal to what I’m paid for a whole year’s filming”, to be in a TV ad. It didn’t take long to turn it down.

He tells eaman: “In the past I’ve lived on very little – on less than minimum wage a lot of the time – and now I’m comfortably off. I’ve got what I need, and don’t see the need for anything more.

“When I see somebody I might have some respect for – a television presenter or some other public figure – popping up in a commercial break, trying to sell us something, I just feel this sense of disappointment.”

He thinks there’s a risk of losing credibility if one links one’s reputation to a product. In his book he wonders what these celebs spend their money on, and is “even more agog (now that I know what it pays to be a mouth for hire) at the depths of human insecurity.

“So although some others might disagree, I think I’ve managed, at least partially, to hang on to my soul.”

Most ‘monstrous’ fish?

“Possibly the goliath tigerfish. If it bites anywhere, it’s going to make a very nasty wound – possibly fatal. It is like a scaled-up piranha. But, again, it’s a bit of a mixture: from the gills back, a beautiful silver-scaled fish with a splash of crimson on the tail – very streamlined.

“But from the gills forward it’s something out of a Terminator movie. It’s almost a bit of engineering; almost metallic. If you haven’t seen the pictures, it sounds like something out of science fiction.”