If you ever get a chance to speak to angler, biologist and ‘freshwater detective’ Jeremy Wade, never ever call the documentary series — like Discovery’s River Monsters — a, ahem, fishing show. He doesn’t like that.
“That [label] always slightly irritates me because [fishing] is part of the mix, but not what it’s all about,” Wade, 60, tells 8days.sg over Zoom recently.
“Since I started doing River Monsters [in 2009], it’s not just about talking to people who fish,” he says. “We try and talk to everybody and what’s gret is we appear to have succeeded in [getting people who don’t fish to watch the show as well]. I’d say about 50 per cent of the people who watch don’t fish, but it’s very difficult to tread that line. If you’re not careful, you end up interesting nobody.”
That said, the intrepid explorer hopes to reach out to as large an audience as possible with his latest, National Geographic’s Unknown Waters. Now streaming (pun unintended) on Disney+, the three-part series sees the adventurer searching for elusive scaly creatures in Amazon, Iceland and Kenya.
Wade’s original idea was to shoot an entire series about the Amazon but those plans were dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, he tells us more about his experiences making the show and how climate change has affected the way people fish.
8 DAYS: We know you from Discovery’s River Monsters. Now, you’re on National Geographic with Unknown Waters. So what’s the difference between the two shows, actually? Did National Geographic give you a bigger budget or something?
JEREMY WADE: River Monsters did very well for us but that would be the kind of story that was, in a sense, quite narrow. It was all about fish and other animals underwater that can potentially harm people, so every programme would start off with a story about someone who got their foot bitten or something like that. Then it was almost like a detective story where we’d work out what could have done this, and at the end, we’d actually show the audience that it’s probably one of these [creatures that caused it].
The thing is, that kind of material is not unlimited. You reach a point where you’ve done all these stories around the world, and I suppose the problem in TV is that if something is successful, there’s a lot of pressure to just keep doing the same thing. If you run out of that material and if you try and force it, it’s just not going to work. So we’ve actually spent a few years trying to [figure out] what’s the next thing to do, and we did a series called Mighty Rivers, which I really enjoyed.
I thought it was great, where we went to five, six of the big rivers around the world and we’re just looking at the problems facing rivers. So that came out of River Monsters. A lot of the methodology is the same, but it’s a slightly different kind of story. We then did something called Dark Waters, with odd little stories that are a bit River Monster-y. It reached a point where I got lots of ideas of what I wanted to do, but where does this go TV-wise?
What we were going to do originally with National Geographic was make a big series about the Amazon, and we’d made the first episode before COVID hit. We were about to go off and do the second episode in Brazil, but as you probably know it had one of the most chaotic responses to COVID in the world along with the US and the UK [then].
It got to the point where we realised we actually can’t finish this Amazon series, so it became a case of, “Well, give us another couple of programmes to just get out wherever you can, where there’s a story.”
There are stories about fish everywhere you go. There are people who have a relationship with fish. There’s a whole story about why fish are found in certain places, so we ended up going to Iceland [for the ‘Icelandic Giants’ ep].
Iceland, very interestingly, had a very coherent and successful COVID-control programme in place. They were really controlling their borders, they clamped down on it internally and made sure that nobody brought It in. If anyone did bring it in, they knew instantly who it was and who they’d infected, so we were able to go there and operate not completely normally — there were certain protocols — but we were able to go in and film. We were looking at the Atlantic salmon, which is the iconic fish that you think about when you think of Iceland.
So in a sense, Unknown Waters came out of a few things. It was slightly accidental in that COVID pushed it in a certain direction, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s actually a very interesting direction where you just pick an interesting place where there is a story about a fish, and it doesn’t have to be a story [like] the stories on River Monsters [which] tended to be a particular kind of thing, but actually, there are other stories out there, and they are all different stories.
In the ‘Amazon River Shark’ episode, you mentioned how the environment affected the river shark over the years. How has climate change affected your work?
[It affects me] very much, actually. The thing is, with these programmes, if I’m going to try and catch a fish somewhere on a river, timing is a very important factor and most rivers in the world have an annual cycle.
This annual cycle tends to be, you know, high water down to low water, and how the fish move, where they are, and how they feed is all tied into that cycle. You’ve always got to get the timing right. It’s normally like in low water, the fish are fairly concentrated but not always, and even in normal times, it’s very hard to pick that time and particularly if you’ve got a film crew.
You might get there but the timing is not quite right and you’ve got to hang on, or you’re just too late. So a big part of our research is finding out when is the right time to be on this river, and it’s always a little bit hit-and-miss. There’s a bit of luck involved.
What I always do is find the local fishermen, and try to find the oldest fishermen because they will know a lot of places. They don’t write things down, it’s all up here (point to his head). They know all about fish behaviour, and what people are telling me all over the world is that in the last 15 or 20 years, the cycles that the rivers are doing have become more unpredictable and uncertain. These aren’t scientists saying this to me. They’re either subsistence, or small-level commercial fishermen, and these are people who are observing rivers where there aren’t any scientists.
A lot of these fishermen are actually observing the rivers more closely than the scientists because their livelihoods depend on understanding the river. So there is a huge body of unwritten anecdotal evidence from all around the world, from people living beside rivers, saying that the movements of these rivers are getting very unpredictable. And what that’s doing is it’s affecting things like the breeding of fish.
A lot of fish make a breeding run. If the rain starts, the water starts rising, and they will start running up the river. They’ve put on weight, they’ve put on eggs, and if that process then stops, the fish doesn’t breed successfully, it’s wasted all that energy, and the fish population goes down. A lot of this happens out of sight.
But something I saw very clearly some years ago in Guyana is that when the river starts to fall, you get sandy beaches forming, and the big turtles come out of the water, dig a hole and lay their eggs. In normal times, those eggs would develop as the water goes down, and then they’d hatch, and then you’ve got a new generation of turtles.
What happens [now] is that the water starts to go down, the turtles lay their eggs, the water then starts to come up again and floods the eggs before they develop. Everything dies. You’ve lost that generation of turtles, and you’ve got a similar thing happening with fish from just disrupted breeding cycles. So climate change, anecdotally, is a huge thing in terms of what it’s doing to freshwater fish around the world.
So you didn’t take a break during the pandemic, like many people who were forced to?
I think we didn’t. Let me see. Last year in 2020, I made two programmes. Normally in the course of a year, I’d make half a dozen programmes, so [the pandemic] did slow things down. There were, and there are still places where it’s possible to go but it’s not as straightforward. Even in Iceland, we were travelling in separate vehicles with masks and distancing. There’s a certain amount of that going on when we were filming in Kenya [for the ‘African Lake Giants’ ep]. We were taking regular tests and we were testing the local people we were with, so all of that added time. So it made things more complicated, but it didn’t make them impossible. We were lucky to keep on going but it’s not to the extent that we’re normally working.
You’ve been to Southeast Asia. What was your favourite catch there?
It’s one of my favourite areas. I’ve not been to the Philippines, unfortunately. I’ve been to Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. You have different types of fish in different parts of the world, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the Amazon. For Southeast Asia, the highlights there that jump into my mind are the snakeheads and giant stingrays. And the Mekong catfish, although it’s impossible to catch those in the wild; they tend to be in stocked lakes. They’re an incredible fish to catch. It’s a little while now since I’ve been, but I do have some of my favourite fish from that part of the world.
Over the years, has catching fish changed your diet? Do you eat fish?
Most of the time, I’m vegetarian. I eat meat occasionally and I do eat fish, but what I try to do is establish that the fish I’m eating comes from a sustainable population. For example, I try not to eat tuna. But I’ve had piranha sashimi in the Amazon where there’s lots of them, and the river’s not going to miss a few others.
Fish are having a hard time; it’s been in the news a lot recently. The situation in the oceans is quite well documented, and one thing that’s quoted quite a lot is that with the present rates of commercial fishing and consumption, they reckon there’s going to be no fish in the oceans worth fishing for commercially by 2050.
That’s horrendous if you think about that. The problem with the oceans is that fishing in the oceans is free for all. And this leads to extinction, basically. In freshwater, it’s not a lot better, but one thing I will say is that we did Mighty Rivers a few years ago and there are some very good examples of river environments where there are cases of local people taking control of their water, which you can do in freshwater, and they are turning things around. They are fishing in a sustainable way, and there are some really good examples in Brazil, in the Amazon, where they’re doing that.
It’s the kind of thing that really needs to be held up to the rest of the world going, “Look, if you manage fisheries, it is the gift that keeps on giving.” But with no management, it’s chaos and we kill the goose that laid the golden egg. It’s a massive, massive challenge facing humanity at the moment — looking after our fish.
You mentioned piranha sashimi. How does it taste?
It depends! With a lot of fish, it depends on the water they came from. The ones that I had were really nice, but I’ll tell you what it was — there was almost no flavour at all. What I did was I just cut a little bit from the top of the back, and it’s just a vehicle for the flavour. I put in a bit of lime, a little bit of salt, and a little of what they call urucum, a red dye like Annatto. It was more about the texture. With a lot of food, it is about the taste, but it’s also about the texture, and it was a very delicate-textured flesh. It was just a vehicle for the lime and stuff you put on it, so that was it. I’m not a huge sashimi fan but I enjoyed that. If I was stuck in the jungle, you might find me doing that to keep myself going.
You can start a jungle sashimi bar.
Unknown Waters with Jeremy Wade is now streaming on Disney+.
Photos: National Geographic Channel