Extreme angler and Animal Planet TV star Jeremy Wade makes no apologies for his crusading environmentalism. Yes, he's a fish hugger.
As host of the hit series "River Monsters," Wade is not shy about getting into murky water with his co-stars: He has embraced a snaggletoothed goliath tigerfish in the Congo River, grappled with a giant freshwater stingray in Thailand and stroked a 20-foot anaconda in the Amazon. But Wade believes the success of his "underwater detective story," the highest-rated show ever on Animal Planet, is that "monsters" can be found closer to home.
"You don't necessarily have to go to some exotic location halfway around the world. You can find that other world very close to where you live," Wade says. "You look at the surface of the water, and you often have no idea what's lurking just out of sight. That's something that gives people a little frisson, a little shiver."
Wade, slated to speak at a March 5 Palm Beach benefit for the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, has done episodes on the carnivorous snakehead in Broward County canals and bull sharks that meander into rivers throughout South Florida. That a shark biting a 22-year-old Coral Springs woman in the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale last June was a newsworthy event is good news, Wade says.
"The interesting thing there is that there are lots [of bull sharks] around. They are overlapping human space, and nothing is really happening," Wade says from the offices of Icon Films, a television production company based in Bristol, England. "It's quite a good story. Bull sharks get quite a lot of bad press."
Wade first entered popular culture with the 1992 publication of the book "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" ("intensely enjoyable ... quirky, informative, fanatical and strangely exhausting," the Daily Telegraph said), in part about his Congo adventure with the goliath tigerfish: "A monstrous relative of the piranha, Hydrocynus goliath ('giant water dog') is without doubt the most horrifying freshwater fish in the world."
The Animal Planet series "River Monsters" (Wade has written a book of the same name) debuted in 2009, and will return for its seventh season April 7.
Wade studied zoology at Bristol University, was a globetrotting travel writer, was once arrested as a spy, beat malaria and survived a plane crash. But the thing that best prepared him to host his own TV show, and to speak in Palm Beach next month, was his stint as a grammar school biology teacher.
"Being in front of a class full of kids, you are giving a performance. You have to get their attention. You've got to awaken their curiosity. You become a bit of an entertainer," he says. "What I do now is almost the other way around. I try to sneak a bit of education into the entertainment. We don't preach to people, but we do try to give them very strong messages."
Having co-stars with large teeth and ugly temperaments helps get the message across, he says.
"One of the themes of the program is fear. There are scary things in the world. There are scary things under the water. And the two normal ways to deal with fear are 1) you hide away from it; 2) you try and wipe it out," Wade says. "We are trying to put forth this middle way: You find out about it. If you understand something, you can coexist with it."
Wade, 58, says there is no personal white whale eluding him — he's checked every box on his list of "monsters" — but there's a fish in the Amazon called the piraiba that he's already caught but still nags at him. There are rumors of the large catfish, which Wade says looks like a shark, at 10 feet long, twice the size of the one he caught.
"Part of me says, 'Yes, I can forget these fish,' but there could be bigger ones there. We don't know. It's part of a fisherman's brain. It's very similar to what's going on in a gambler: You're always wanting that other throw of the dice," he says.
Wade has so far escaped serious injury, with the most severe a snapped tendon that still disfigures his right biceps, courtesy of the stingray in Thailand. Wade did not know the late Animal Planet star Steve Irwin, host of "The Crocodile Hunter," who died in 2006 after an encounter with a similarly massive stingray in Australia, but says his legacy is a cautionary tale.
"There is this question about [television viewers] becoming almost desensitized to what they see, so you have to keep making it more dramatic, more extreme. The important thing is to know where the line is, in terms of what's acceptable, what's safe, and not to go beyond it," Wade says. "We make everything look, sort of, worse than it is with dramatic editing and music and all the rest of it. But I don't have any kind of death wish. I don't do things that we haven't really thought about beforehand."
Jeremy Wade, star of Animal Planet's "River Monsters," will speak at an annual benefit for the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, 7 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Breakers, 1 S. County Road, in Palm Beach. Tickets cost $500. Call 561-370-7738 or visit SFScienceCenter.org.