Anti-shark stereotypes in “River Monsters”

Jeremy Wade and a "river monster". Image from treehugger.com

Over Memorial Day weekend, Animal Planet aired a marathon of it’s new hit show “River Monsters”. The show focuses on self-described “biologist and extreme angler” Jeremy Wade’s attempt to find some of the largest freshwater fish on Earth. I’ve heard good things about the show in the past but had never seen it before. After discovering that there were two episodes that dealt with bull sharks, and I immediately DVR-ed them to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was absolutely shocked at what I heard Jeremy Wade say about sharks:

“No fish inspires the same terror as the shark… but at least these killers are confined to the oceans… or are they?”

“As an angler and biologist I wanted to find out how this is possible, and how far inland these sharks will bring their reign of terror. My mission is to find out whether it’s safe to get back in the water even if you’re miles from the sea.”

“It would mean that there is no water safe from these predators. It can happen anywhere. The danger they present isn’t restricted to Australia.”

“Their ferocity is the stuff of nightmares… the ultimate killer shark”

“…there lurks a beast that is the embodiment of savagery…”

“…a battering ram armed with razor sharp teeth…”

Are you kidding me?

These quotes weren’t even the most absurd parts of the shows. Those came when Jeremy attempted to use his biologist background to explain shark behavior.

In “Freshwater Shark”, he interviews an Australian horse rancher who claims that one of his horses was attacked while swimming in a river 80 miles upstream from the ocean. Wade immediately assumes that a bull shark was involved, even though the river has a huge dam in it that would stop any fish from passing. He theorizes that a flood allowed a “colony of large bull sharks” to get over the dam. I wasn’t aware that bull sharks traveled in colonies, but Wade is a biologist, so that must be based on some sort of science. Right? There’s no way that any other large predators live in Australian rivers? Oh, that’s right. They do.

Photo by WhySharksMatter at Hartley's Crocodile Adventure in Queensland, Australia

Wade dismissed the theory that a croc was responsible because no one had reported seeing one that large in the isolated Aussie farm country. He claims that it’s far more likely that a flood caused a colony of sharks to bypass a dam. Yikes.

In ”Hidden Predator”, Wade notices a bull shark take a hooked catfish right off a fisherman’s line. From this one incident, he concludes that bull sharks in this region get all of their food in this manner, which he describes as “like a protection payment. The sharks steal a percentage of the fisherman’s catch, and in exchange they leave humans alone… at least for now”.  This observation, once again, is based on a robust sample size of one.  Later, he takes special care to avoid catching the same shark twice. After all, he doesn’t want the sharks to be afraid of boats, which would cause them to stop stealing from fisherman and start eating people. How considerate of him.

One of the most troubling scenes I’ve ever seen in non-fiction television occurred when Wade worked with SAMPLA scientists in South Africa who are trying to study local bull sharks. He reports that one of the scientists received death threats from a local for releasing the sharks after they’ve been caught and tagged. Rather than criticizing this outrageous behavior and standing up for science, Wade sympathizes with those making the threats and says “it’s hard to believe that once I’ve caught a potential maneater, these scientists plan to release it… like putting a fox into a chickencoop” I had to pause the DVR and scream at the TV for a little while after that one.

Once, while trying to catch a large bull shark, he caught one that couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. At that size (approximately 1.5 feet), they’re almost cute. Wade even tries to terrify us while holding the baby. He says “I already know there are big females in this river. This means they are breeding here…It’s a scary thought that this river will be its hunting ground for life”

Most ridiculous of all was Wade’s constant assertions that bull sharks swimming into freshwater was a new behavior. He describes this several times:

“more and more, it seems like this freshwater Jaws is bringing its savagery into our once tame backyard”

“This is totally not normal in a river”

“I’ve hooked a creature so strong there’s no way that it should ever be in this river”

“This unstoppable predator is bringing its savagery into the very heart of our civilized world”

“Now we know that there’s more than one shark using this river, and that’s a concern”.

“It seems one species of shark has been trespassing… fresh water, operating where people thought no danger existed”

Actually, Mr. Biologist, bull sharks have been doing this for millions of years. And of course there’s more than one.

This kind of unscientific fearmongering would be intolerable from anyone, but it is completely inexcusable from a scientist who works for a nature channel.

~WhySharksMatter

  1. Thanks for calling this out. Been watching same show and liked it until he started sliding into the shark garbage.

    For a fishing show it has to add fluff, otherwise it is hours and hours of a guy waiting for a bite.

    As always it is the nature of the fluff that annoys me when it comes to sharks. Take this show quote and place it at the feet of humans instead.

    “This unstoppable predator is bringing its savagery into the very heart of our civilized world”

  2. I actually like the show, but yeah, the shark episodes were pretty terrible. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Expedition Great White though.

  3. I agree with Chuck. I have watched several episodes of River Monsters and really like it, but that episode on the bull shark was ridiculous. I couldn’t believe he was implementing the shark over the croc either. I feel like some of the things Wade says are to build up the hype about sometimes ridiculous myths about freshwater fish, but in those episodes, it sounds like he believed them too.

  4. I’ve seen a few episodes, and he’s always released the animals he caught, saying he doesn’t have the right to kill them intentionally. How can he act so differently with sharks? This review of the shark episodes has changed my opinion of the show. Maybe he really is trying to make something completely sensational.

  5. Bull sharks in fresh water rivers is nothing new. They are the Zambezi shark in Africa for the obvious reason that they are found in numbers in the Zambezi river. In Australia they are called the Whaler shark and frequent the estuaries there, in South America they have been found a 1000 km up the Amazon river. They have been doing this long before we humans came on the scene and started featuring into their territory. Learn more at Sharks.

  6. Funny you don’t mention the recent successes Animal Planet has had. I know they do some crappy stuff in terms of shark PR, but don’t you think that it would at least help if people (such as bloggers with a large online following, like yourself) would applaud the things they do right?

    Specifically, I’m thinking of “Wild Recon.” The show did an entire episode just based on sharks and highlighting some of the ways conservationists are helping and tracking the sharks. Sure, the host does some questionable stuff occasionally in terms of safety, but that fact that he’s conveying accurate information should be enough that more people are endorsing the show.

    And frankly, if a show has a choice between stunts (“Wild Recon”) and sensationalism (“River Monsters”), wouldn’t you prefer the stunts as long as they’re done safely?

    Unfortunately, I think “Wild Recon” isn’t doing any more episodes. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. If you have and you haven’t said anything, shame on you.

    • It used to be on the Animal Planet website. They’d rotate out the episodes. Right now, I guess they have them all taken down because the series is over (for now, I think the host is making a new season or a new show).

      I haven’t found it for free, but you can download it through iTunes for ~$2. The episode is “Ocean Killers” (not the best title, but it is a good episode).

      The rest of the show is mainly about reptiles. It’s an “animal bothering” show, but he does some cool stuff.

  7. Oh, and “River Monsters” had Vic Hislop on on the most recent bull shark episode. So…there is that. I was really really disappointed in Mr. Wade for that.

  8. Wow… That’s messed up. The episode on alligator gar had quite a bit of references to the fact that there are other large predators (read: actual ‘gators) in the areas they live which are far more likely to be the source of attacks in those waters. How do you do that, and then turn around and pretend like crocs in ‘Stralia are unlikely to be the aggressor?

  9. Hi, I’m new to this site, but I wanted to comment on this. I saw both of the ‘River Monster’ shows and couldnt believe what he was saying. First off, is it really possible for a shark to attack a horse like that? I’d think its mouth would be too small and awkwardly positioned to bite a horse there. I saw another show, which I wish I could remember the name of, where the scientist said that you could cover the nose of the shark with your hand to put it into tonic immobility. Is that even possible? I noticed it didnt really work when he tried it, but eventually learned to turn them over on their backs to do it.
    Also, I can only imagine that his insane idea that bull sharks in fresh water are ‘new’ is that its relatively unknown to most that they can swim in fresh water and that you dont generally think of sharks as being in freshwater. Have you ever seen the movie ‘Red Water’? Its about this exact thing; a bull shark killing people in fresh water. I like it because it sort of ‘educates’ people about the bull shark being able to swim in fresh water. I also have to say I like it because it isnt about the great white as like 95% of most shark movies are.
    Finally, as much as I love Jaws, I wish movies/TV shows would stop portraying sharks as ‘mindless killing machines’, because as we all know they arent.

  10. I’ve only started watching the show. There is some things that are amazing but this one is questionable. If he really is a Scientist he should know not to take one incident to come out with a conclusion. As a scientist you have to look at all possibilities. If you don’t you leave room for error. Ever since “Jaws” the public has been brain washed of how sharks really are. They do not hunt man or are killing machines just for the sake of killing. They do what they do to survive, just like any other wild animal. They have also been proven to be intelligent.

  11. I am a Cancervation biologist from Sweden and with statements like that from poeple like Jeremy Wade, it is the same as Mr. Wade taking a dump on the many years spent at University trying to understand how life works! Why are they allowed to work with bringing information to the common poeple? An other sad day for science!

  12. I was intrigued by this show but have been getting more and more angry at it. Despite the incredible footage they get each episode of some of the most spectacular creatures out there, the show seems to tell you that you should hate and fear them. It’s all about “killers” and “savage beasts” as evidenced in the quotes above. More and more he seems to be looking for worthy opponents to vanquish and even humiliate. It’s becoming a bizarre spectacle.

  13. Of course he needs to make a “conclution” based on a small (one in this case) testsample, it’s a TV-SHOW, not a documentary following a team of scientists over an extended period of time.

    If all he did, when he finally catches whatever fish he happens to be searching for atm ,is say “ok, I caught one. err.. well.. I’d need another 99 to make a viable conclution, so.. umm.. I’ll just put it back where I found it” THE END
    Then the show wouldnt have any viewers, and thus wouldnt be making any money. And money, as we all know, rules the world.

    It’s not ment to be educating, its ment to be ENTERTAINING!
    Jeeze! Honestly I’m despairing over the lack of brainfuction in the majority of internetusers theese days.

    /Jojo

    • This is where the “brainfunction” part comes in. Anyone, not alredy nominated to the Darwin awards, should be able to see this for what it is.

      Do movies like “Piranha” or “Deep blue sea” terrify people? no (fortunetley the majority of the public today are better educated, and view media with more sceptisism, then back in the 70’s when JAWS was released)
      so why would a series clearly made for entertainment purposes be any different.

      Am I being odd here? To me it’s so abundantly obvious what this show is about. Mixing fact with fiction to make it interesting to the general masses.
      But perhaps that’s just cause of the way I was brought up, dont believe its true just because you see it on TV.

      /Jojo

    • If that were even remotely true than the number 1 search result for this site wouldn’t be “science river monsters sharks” for the forth week in a row. Yeah, you’re being odd. Piranha and Deep Blue Sea aren’t produced as documentaries, River Monsters is. The host is described as a biologist, and everything he says is couched in the trappings of a scientist.

      Congratulations, you’ve reached some glorious level of perception where your keen and untainted intellect can pierce the haze of modernity, but no, there’s no a priori reason why an average lay person watching a biologist on a nature documentary on a channel that produces many high quality nature documentaries would assume that entire segments of the show are completely fabricated. But I guess in your enlightened worldview, we shouldn’t bother pointing out when popular media gets things wrong, because anyone who believes it should die.

  14. Did anybody on this website watch more than the two shark episodes? I’m no expert but aren’t shark savage predators? Do they not hunt all day for food? If all you are going to do is watch two episodes of a show and base your opinons off it, well that just shows how stupid you are. As for the comment that all he says is you should hate and fear these river monsters again you must not have watch more than two episodes. Because I recall him telling many of the locals in these towns he visits that you should not hate and fear these animals. I love River Monsters and quite frankly if he is saying we should hate and fear a bull shark in a river well I quite agree with him. Maybe everyone else here woud love to go swimming with a shark but I think I would pass on the chance. In conclusion look at the name of the show “River MONSTERS” and that should explain everything. Next you will be telling everyone that a lion is actually a cuddly kitten.

    • “quite frankly if he is saying we should hate and fear a bull shark in a river well I quite agree with him.”

      The general idea is that the behavior of non-human animals generally does not have a moral status, and so hating any animal for its behavior is wrong.

      Didn’t see the show, but I probably didn’t need to. This sort of predator-bashing is all around, and really does have negative effects on conservation efforts.

  15. Regardless of your opinion of the River Monsters show, It is COMPLETELY IRRESPONSIBLE to release the LARGEST Bull shark ever caught back into residential areas, where kids and adults play and swim. Even Alison Towner acknowledged during the show, that the tagged shark was tracked in waters knee high around populated areas.

    If you find a rattle snake in your house, are you going to catch and release it outside your door, by your kids swing set?

    Not a lot of bright people here!

  16. ترجمة من العربية إلى الإنجليزية
    A serious problem and I need an answer to a question

    The emergence of a white shark the most dangerous types of shark

    What methods of defense or the treatment of this problem

    I want to reply

    • Eslam,

      I’m going to try my best to piece together your questions. I recognize that you are a non-native English speaker and I’ll be patient with you if you’ll be patient with me.

      I think that you are asking me how to protect people from great white shark attacks, presumably as a result of the recent shark attacks in Egypt.

      While great whites are on of the “deadliest” shark species, shark attacks are still an incredibly rare phenomenon and aren’t really anything that you need to worry about. Going to the beach is dangerous, but not because of sharks. Many more people die each year drowning because they are poor swimmers. Tens of millions of people enter the water every year, and sharks kill, on average, 10-20 people. Government and media hysteria aside, shark attacks aren’t really something that you need to worry about.

      I haven’t been following every detail of the situation in Egypt (ordinarily I would, but I have final exams this week), but from what I’ve heard, the dive operators may have been at fault for illegally feeding sharks to attract them and then not properly training divers in how to safely interact with sharks that are actively eating. It is totally possible to safely interact with sharks in this way, it just requires training. I don’t know for sure that this is what happened, I’m waiting for the final report, but it seems likely with the evidence so far.

      The only way that you can guarantee absolute safety in the ocean is to not go in the ocean. I don’t recommend this, because the ocean is awesome. If you stay smart and don’t feed sharks without proper safety training, however, the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor.

      I hope this helps. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.

    • thanks mr David
      but your know now of egypt

      You know very well that the appearance of white shark has become a danger to all people
      But I am sure that there are ways of treating this subject
      Well I know you and some scientists and Algirae in the science of sharks and some research centers and research is very active in the outside but I do not see the Ciy unusual but it is a serious issue not just here but in the world and you know very well the most dangerous types of shark fish white shark and is the most dangerous
      Types of sharks, but they learned from some of the centers that there are devices and methods of treatment for many
      I’m sure and I know well that here in our country does not have enough experience to deal with this type, but
      I have to go and talk with you consulted
      What should you do in this topic
      I want Yahoo mail, you

  17. What are the ways to combat white shark

    I want to scientists and experts in the field of anti-white shark

    I know very well that this kind of the most dangerous shark species

    I want a solution

  18. I really enjoy river monsters, but i purposely didnt watch these two episodes for this exact reason, i didnt want to hate Mr Wade. The show is all about sensationalising things, but he always catches and releases and tries to educate locals on why. Its sad that he doesnt extend this attitude towards sharks. Very sad.

    • From that description, I’m sorry that I didn’t watch any other episodes. I’ve only seen the shark ones, and it gave me an extremely negative impression of the whole series.

  19. You know very well that the appearance of white shark has become a danger to all people
    But I am sure that there are ways of treating this subject
    Well I know you and some scientists and Algirae in the science of sharks and some research centers and research is very active in the outside but I do not see the Ciy unusual but it is a serious issue not just here but in the world and you know very well the most dangerous types of shark fish white shark and is the most dangerous
    Types of sharks, but they learned from some of the centers that there are devices and methods of treatment for many
    I’m sure and I know well that here in our country does not have enough experience to deal with this type, but
    I have to go and talk with you consulted
    What should you do in this topic
    I want Yahoo mail, you

  20. This thread has been interesting to read. I note a few points: 1)having watched both bull shark episodes, I have greater respect for the animal, and did not get the inpression that Wade was doing any more than reiterating public fear. 2) Wade’s conclusions in both Australia and South AFrica were supported by further evidence (in Australia there is a confirmed population of sharks above the damn/weir on the river in question/ in SA, the sonic tracking placed the tracked shark repeatedly underneath boats that were actively fishing) 3) in both episodes, Wade affirmed that the existing ecosystem was in fact functioning and should not be messed with-that nature should take its course. Likely he did feel odd releasing large predators back into waters that butt up against residential swimming/activity areas-the issue is tricky-it was obvious that the individuals in SA were not aware of how large the population of sharks was, or of how closely their recreation was tied to the sharks well being.

    Over all, take the hate off-and consider that, as some have already state-it is entertainment that includes facts. And, if you listen critically, the facts and the respect are always there.

    • Thanks for commenting.

      “Wade’s conclusions in both Australia and South AFrica were supported by further evidence (in Australia there is a confirmed population of sharks above the damn/weir on the river in question/ in SA, the sonic tracking placed the tracked shark repeatedly underneath boats that were actively fishing”

      Do you have sources for these claims? I’d love to read them. If true, they are fascinating additions to our understanding of shark behavior.

      However, even if later evidence supports Wade’s claim, it doesn’t change the fact that a claim based on a sample size of one is not scientific. If he had said “well, maybe this is what’s happening, we’ll have to do more research to find out” it would be a different story. He was emphatic that this was what must be happening.

      “Likely he did feel odd releasing large predators back into waters that butt up against residential swimming/activity areas”

      He can feel odd about it all he wants. My issue was that A) locals threatened the life of a scientist for doing something, B) Wade did not support the scientist, and C) Wade said that the locals who threatened the life of a scientist had a point.

      “having watched both bull shark episodes, I have greater respect for the animal, and did not get the inpression that Wade was doing any more than reiterating public fear”

      Did you watch the same show I did? Wade had some of the most fear-mongering quotes I’ve ever come across on television. They’re listed in the post above and I won’t repeat them here.

      Thanks again for your comments. I hope I’ve helped to clarify my viewpoint a little.

    • Apparently Jeremy Wades comments was not so far fetched. Even National Geographic comments on how violent and aggressive they truly are.Here is a link to the page where some of the facts I found about bull sharks.

      “Bull sharks are aggressive, common, and usually live near high-population areas like tropical shorelines. They are not bothered by brackish and freshwater, and even venture far inland via rivers and tributaries.

      Because of these characteristics, many experts consider bull sharks to be the most dangerous sharks in the world. Historically, they are joined by their more famous cousins, great whites and tiger sharks, as the three species most likely to attack humans.”

      http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/bull-shark/

      My point is Bull Sharks have been seen in rivers and lakes across the USA.If you think there not so aggressive and know so much,would you go diving in a place where bull sharks are? Bull Sharks are dangerous creatures and have no place in rivers and lakes.

  21. Honestly I think you’re overreacting a little. To expect hard science from a show called “River Monsters” or for that matter ANY show on Discovery (which is owned by Disney) is a little naive. Further, at no point in any of the episodes of this show does Wade make any claims to be on a scientific fact-finding mission, something which is made abundantly clear by his reliance on eyewitness accounts, myth, folklore and legends as his primary information sources. Now I do agree that the anthropomorphic demonizing of the natural behaviors of an animal is ridiculous and frustrating and it would piss me off no end to hear that during Shark Week (for example) but the simple truth of the matter is that sharks (and other predators) DO inspire fear in just about everyone except shark researchers. And to use your own example, Wade said that he “felt uncomfortable” about the release of the bull shark…stating his own opinion, NOT making a scientific observation. I don’t expect I’ll change your mind but maybe in the future you’ll take a look at such things in context and not try to give yourself a coronary episode.

  22. First my credentials I am an avid fisherman, kayaker, diver and member of the NMFS apex predator tagging program. I also work with a land based shark fishing guide service(they fish from a beach or pier vs. a boat) in florida. I have caught and released thousands of sharks many of which were bulls.
    To start, I agree that what was said in river monsters is pretty ridiculous.
    Though It seems the real question is do these sharks deserve this reputation as vicious, aggressive predators?

    The real answer is yes and no. But it’s not nescessarly the sharks fault.

    Attacks by bull sharks are very rare in open clear water during daylight hours. And I would have little fear of diving with them in these conditions.
    In muddy or brackish rivers or lakes or even in murky ocean water I would be very hesitant to swim with these fish. Remeber they are an apex predator, one with no hands to feel. So how do they feel or tell if something in their environment that smells like it could be food is or not when they can’t see it? They bite to feel. I am firmly convinced that the majority of shark attacks happen in this manner. That is why most “attacks” are single bites. The shark bites you and then realizes you are not part of its usual diet and spits you out or doesn’t come back for a second bite. Dont get me wrong these fish are capable of eating people and have in the past but so have any nuber of other predators whom we dont show the proper respect.
    If you live near these types of animals you learn the rules and follow them. Just like if you live in bear country or croc country or lion country.
    Never swim in murky water especially after a rain storm and never swim in the ocean at dusk and dawn that is when these fish are usually the most activly hunting

    I absolutly love sharks and am dedicated to their conservation, but I also respect them for what they are which is a highly evolved pedator that can hurt or kill you with ease if it mistakes you for food(and technically once you enter the water you are part of the food chain)
    I hope I dont offend anyone that is not my intention but these are dangerous creatures that should be respected.

  23. I’m leaving this message for River monsters show. Back in 2002 my family and I went to Langley Oklahoma. There is a huge Dam there. Sometimes they realease water and fish for ” Spoonbills ” they grow in excess of 7 feet long and they are super prehistoric looking . They eat small shellfish so a treble hook is needed to catch these ” River Monsters “. I think we are all getting a little tired of catfish. Maybe it’s time for something new.

  24. I LOVE RIVER MONSTERS AND JEREMY WADE. Its an awesome show, and yes maybe he embelishes a bit with some theatrics, but I never would have known Bulls swim up rivers or that there were these rediculously huge fish, some with massive teeth, in river systems. Jeremy also pays and encourages a lot of respect for these creatures. He was completely deflated and almost in tears in one episode when a tribe was insisting he not return a fish to the sea because they intended to eat it. He would have returned it had the fish recovered. Kudos to the show in my opinion! Oh, and I love Expedition Great White too!

  25. Don’t make me laugh. Most of you people are a joke on here. There is a reason why you don’t have your own TV show. Quite frankly you know nothing. Just a bunch of uppity “save the whales” type people.

  26. I love Jeremy Wade and River Monsters! He has done a lot to create interest in conserving the fish that he investigates. It sounds like you have taken him COMPLETELY out of context over the one bull shark episode. I have read both his books & watch the show all the time; he is very interested in saving the river fish and their environments; he has NEVER advocated killing any of the fish he catches (and releases, 99.9% of the time); rather he thinks that all fish, even predators of humans, be studied and respected for what they are, and he also reminds people that in any body of water, we are on the fish’s territory and we need to take precautions to safeguard ourselves if we decide to take the risk of swimming in their home.